The rise and rise of the smartphone and tablet markets has generated unprecedented demand for all things new in the world of mobile devices, from applications and accessories to innovative technologies designed to broaden and enrich the user experience. Now, a group of scientists in Singapore has developed an innovative, precision-engineered plastic film that can turn standard mobile phone screens into three-dimensional (3D) displays.
The new plastic film, known as EyeFly3D — devised and developed by researchers at the A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) and Temasek Polytechnic (TP) in Singapore — enables smartphone users to view 3D images and videos without having to wear special glasses or headgear.
With a thickness of less than 0.1 millimeters, EyeFly3D is the first innovation of its kind to offer a glasses-free 3D experience in both portrait and landscape formats. Outwardly resembling an ordinary screen protector for mobile phones, the film’s uniqueness lies at the nanoscale. Using a method based on the IMRE’s proprietary nanoimprinting technology, the film consists of around half a million carefully shaped lenses patterned onto its surface. This pattern, known as a lenticular lens array, gives a smoother, clearer and more transparent finish than that of previously developed 3D filters.
“Our proprietary process is highly customizable and allows for rapid prototyping to suit the latest high-resolution smartphones and tablets currently on the market,” says Loke Yee Chong, who currently leads the IMRE’s lenticular lens array project.
Lenticular lens technology works by presenting two different perspectives of the same image to the left and right eyes for every pixel of the image. This creates an autostereoscopic display, which enables the user to perceive 3D content without the need for extra equipment.
The innovative use of nanoimprinting to enhance existing lenticular lens technology enabled the research team to focus on design and process optimization. “One of the primary reasons for choosing nanoimprinting technology as a baseline for the development of this plastic film is the technology’s capability for high-resolution patterning,” Loke explains. An increasing consumer demand for higher-resolution mobile liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) has been accompanied by a dramatic reduction in pixel pitch size — presenting considerable challenges for conventional photolithographic techniques. “There has been a pertinent need to find a new micro- or nanofabrication technique for glasses-free 3D displays that is on par with the LCD-display technological advancement. Nanoimprinting technology fits the bill, with its ability to achieve very high resolution patterning, its flexibility and its manufacturing scalability through roll-to-roll.”
EyeFly3D not only offers a high-quality, distortion-free viewing experience but also provides a cost-effective solution for the creation of 3D graphics and effects, as it does not require extra backlighting and thus limits battery consumption. In addition, smartphone users can easily place and peel off the reusable film themselves. With a durability similar to that of other screen protectors currently on the market, EyeFly3D can withstand the typical handling and scratches that mobile phones are subjected to.
EyeFly3D is being marketed through Nanoveu Pte Ltd, a Singapore-based nanotech start-up. The 3D technology itself will be licensed exclusively from ETPL (Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd), the technology transfer arm of A*STAR, and TP. Originally designed for use in mobile phones, the film is expected to be affordable and readily available to consumers.
In 2009, researchers from the IMRE’s nanoimprinting group and software programming specialists at TP first embarked on the development of an autostereoscopic display that exploits both groups’ baseline technologies, in work aided by a National Research Foundation Translational R&D Grant and supported by A*STAR. At the time when widespread interest in 3D technology surged due to the release of films such as Avatar (2009), glasses-free 3D technologies were still in their relative infancy. “This posed a challenge for us as we did not yet have a reference benchmark, but at the same time, it presented an opportunity for us,” says Jaslyn Law, the IMRE researcher who worked closely with colleagues from TP to come up with the patented lens array structures. “Now, 3D viewing is everywhere — from smart televisions to computers where 3D video can be seen on YouTube.”
Driven by consumer demand, 3D display technologies have hit their stride and today utilize increasingly sophisticated imaging methods. Besides lenticular lenses, 3D effects can also be achieved through a device called a parallax barrier, a type of filter consisting of alternating opaque and transparent strips that give the illusion of depth. Compared with the parallax barrier, however, lenticular lenses offer the advantage of presenting brighter and sharper images.
The realization of this nanotech-enhanced lenticular lens technology is due in part to the extensive work the IMRE has performed on nanomaterials and innovative thin films. “Our nanoimprinting group at the IMRE has been working on various types of functional films, such as antireflective and antibacterial films, for a number of years,” says Law. (For other recent examples of the IMRE’s work on nanoimprinting, patterning and synthesis, see the article Innovation: Fantastic plastic and the research highlights Nanomaterials: Copying geckos’ toes and Nanoparticle assembly: Bridging spheres.)
In addition to bringing the initial concept of nanoimprinting technology to market, the research team has developed new applications — compatible with the Apple iOS and Android software platforms — to facilitate the transition from 2D to 3D viewing. Users will potentially be able to convert any photo or video taken on their mobile device into 3D media.
Another area in which the new technology may be applied is online security. Increasingly, banks and corporations are adopting strategies to improve web-based user authentication, and the thin-film patterning technique may open up new avenues of research into nanoencryption and electronic access systems.
There are also plans for the research team to release a software development kit, which will enable game developers to gain ground in the fast-growing handheld 3D gaming market. Video gaming is a global multi-billion-dollar industry and continues to evolve to suit the needs and preferences of mobile users.
“The success of this project is typical of what the IMRE aims to do — innovate and turn science into an exciting business opportunity,” says Andy Hor, executive director of the IMRE. “I’m glad this has given us products that make life just a little bit more fun.”
About the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering
The A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) was established in 1997 with the aim of becoming a leading research institute for materials science and engineering. The IMRE has developed strong capabilities in materials analysis, characterization, materials growth, patterning, fabrication, synthesis and integration, and has established research and development programs in collaboration with industry partners.
About Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd
Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd (ETPL) is the technology transfer arm of A*STAR. Its mission is to support A*STAR in transforming the economy through commercializing R&D. ETPL enhances the research output of A*STAR scientists by translating their inventions into marketable products or processes. Through licensing deals and spin-offs with industry partners, ETPL is a key driver of technology transfer in Singapore. It actively engages industry leaders and players to commercialize A*STAR’s technologies and capabilities, bridging the gap from mind to market. ETPL’s charter is to identify, protect and exploit promising intellectual property created by A*STAR’s research institutes.