Friday Slide: Will Apple Make a 3-D iPhone?

I just returned from GDC Online in Austin last week, where I had several eye-opening meetings with mobile video game and hardware developers. However, what’s got me most excited for 2011 has to be autostereoscopy: full 3-D without the glasses. I’m more convinced than ever that 3-D smartphones will be the next big thing.

The case for autostereoscopic 3-D smartphones is pretty easy to make. 3-D movies are the new hotness, with everything from sci-fi epics to animated family movies and horror films busting out into the third dimension and making beaucoup bucks. But unless you’ve got money to burn, a 3-D HDTV is looking like a mighty unnecessary luxury item.

Upgrading your cellphone, however, is a much more natural idea. Your TV should last you a decade or more, but your cellphone starts to feel out of date every year or two. For most people, watching Avatar or Piranha in 3-D will have to be in the movie theater, on a 3-D smartphone, or not at all.

Plus, handheld 3-D gaming will be on everyone’s mind next year when Nintendo launches their 3DS. I had a chance to play with this wondertoy at E3, and the two-hour wait in line was well worth it. The 3-D effect can be scaled from vertigo-inducing depth to a completely flat, traditional display. It’s the kind of innovative technology that is designed to go mainstream, demonstrated enthusiastically on Good Morning America and other soccer-mom daytime television shows. Expect the Nintendo 3DS to sell like gangbusters.

And when it does, other companies will be all aboard the handheld 3-D train. Handset makers like Samsung, LG, and Nokia will be tripping over themselves to bring Nintendo’s technology to smartphones for movies, primarily, but games will not be far behind. Don’t you think Google wants their Android platform to have every possible competitive edge, and use every hot new technology, to beat Apple in the smartphone market?

Meanwhile, Apple will do what they always do: Wait until the kinks and glitches get worked out, and then step in with their polished, finished product. A 3-D, autostereoscopic slider for a future iPhone? It seems increasingly likely to me.

This isn’t just empty speculation: At GDC Online, companies like Scaleform were working with modified, existing technology to create autostereoscopic smartphone displays. I watched a 3-D trailer for How to Train Your Dragon, while wearing no glasses, on a tiny little display. They showed this same technology a few weeks before at a NVIDIA conference, where Netbook News got them to confirm that NVIDIA’s Tegra graphics on an Android platform can lead to some impressive autostereoscopic magic.

The 3-D effect doesn’t come across in a Youtube video, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s very impressive in person.

Games are a natural extension of this handheld 3-D technology, and it looks like a wave of innovation is coming right at us. We can’t wait.

Andrew Podolsky is the Editor in Chief of Slide To Play.

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