3D on a Smartphone? Different Ways to Do it Right


3D is all the rage these days. From 3D movies to 3D television, everything seems to be better in 3D — but is it really “better”? Or is 3D just a gimmick to sell more expensive tickets, to get you to replace your flat-panel TV, and to replace your movie collection? Putting “big-screen” 3D aside, the extra dimension is now making its way onto our smartphones.

Rather than dig into whether or not 3D “belongs” in your pocket, we decided to take a look at how 3D technologies could be applied to smartphones that would add value to the device, and enhance the user experience. Here’s what we came up with.

3D Technologies

There are different ways to look at 3D and it’s important that we know what technology it is that’s being discussed because they’re all very different.

First up is “virtual 3D”, as demonstrated by many of today’s popular mapping applications. These apps take a two-dimensional view and “tilt” the tiles away from you, simulating distance and adding perceived depth to the information presented in the app. Objects in the distance look smaller than objects “closer” to you. The recent update to Google Maps even added vector-based “buildings” which appear to stand above this “tilted” world, adding yet another layer of perceived depth and dimension. The fact remains, although very cool, the display is still very much 2D.

google maps

Next we have another type of simulated 3D. This variant comes in two flavors, one required the viewer to wear some sort of special glasses to filter out graphical information for each eye, essentially turning a “blurry” image into what looks like a 3D image. This can be done with red and blue lenses, polarized lenses, and even lenses that turn on virtual shutters, blocking the image to one eye then the other in quick succession. Glasses are arguably the easiest way to simulate 3D, but they’re big and clunky, and who wants to put on a pair of glasses every time they want to use their phone?


There is another type of simulated 3D that doesn’t require the use of glasses. This is done by various proprietary methods which essentially makes objects look three-dimensional through the use of a special screen. Whether or not this can be considered actual holography is up for debate.

The last method is real 3D where objects are literally tangible and tactile in space. This type of technology hasn’t been created yet, but might be able to be simulated using physical feedback when an object is interacted with. You’re probably familiar with this on some on-screen keyboards that use the phone’s vibration motor to provide tactile feedback when a “button” is “pressed”.

Movies and Video

Since many movies and other video programs are coming out in the new 3D format, it should be fairly obvious that this content will eventually make it onto the little screens in our phones. For viewing this type of simulated 3D content the use of theater-style glasses may be an option, since little interaction is done with the device once the content begins to play.


To capture a three-dimensional image, whether static or moving, one needs two points of reference to determine depth of field. This is why animals (ourselves included) have two eyes spaced a few inches apart — cover one eye and you lose your depth perception. It’s not terribly difficult to recreate this effect by using two cameras spaced a similar distance apart. Combining these two images in a format that is usable to both 2D and 3D viewers may prove tricky.



Adding 3D movie playback to a smartphone seems like a no-brainer. Adding stereoscopic cameras for taking 3D still pictures and video would also seem a logical addition. Adding 3D effects to various apps to add a level of “depth” to the content could go a long way in wow-factor and enhancing the general user experience. Making UI elements such as buttons look — and perhaps feel — three-dimensional? We don’t see that happening any time soon.

But enough about what we think, what do you think? What could 3D be used for on a phone? Is it something you simply must have in your next device? Do you think that it’s just a fad and will fade into history? Let us know in the comments!

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.