The Looking Glass

Looking Glass Factory’s latest display combines new and old technologies to achieve glasses-free 3D.


Looking Glass Factory is an interesting firm devoted to the future of three-dimensional display technology. I’ve purchased a few of their devices over the years via Kickstarter; the first, the L3D Cube, was a volumetric, low-resolution lighting array – nicely designed, but a bit more of a DJ effect than a functional display. Volume, a few years later, projected images onto a stack of clear surfaces, presenting true glasses-free 3D at the expense of both resolution and image quality. By the time I unboxed Volume, the firm had moved on to yet another product, the HoloPlayer One.

The firm’s latest offering, eponymously titled the Looking Glass, takes a different approach, and initial reviews indicated that it was a big step forward from previous models, at a surprisingly reasonable price. Here are my first impressions:


Unboxing

The device comes in a small carrying case, packaged simply with USB and HDMI cables. I opted for the smaller, 8.9″ model, which looks roughly like an iPad with a solid block of prismatic material fixed to the front of its screen, making it a hefty 4.8 pounds (the larger, 15.6″ version comes in at nearly 20 lbs). The device sits at a slight angle on its metallic frame, which incorporates four navigation buttons, making the device suitable for simple standalone applications. I chose an option that bundled in a Leap Motion controller, as the display itself doesn’t incorporate touch functionality.

Looking Glass

The device is powered via USB; once connected to my laptop, the display immediately sprang to life, mirroring my desktop wallpaper. There are no drivers to download – the computer sees the device as a standard display.

I downloaded a quick test application from the device website, which displayed some basic 3D shapes on the Looking Glass. The effect was impressive – I was able to peer at the display from different angles and view the objects from different perspectives – but I wanted to see how well it worked with animation and interactivity.


Applications

To start, I downloaded an app library from Looking Glass that offers easy installation of roughly 60 free demo programs. At this point, my laptop began overheating and became less responsive, so I switched to a more robust desktop. The specs for the display suggest a powerful dedicated GPU – and Macs are not recommended.

A handful of the apps were animations with light interactivity – these seem well suited to the device’s ‘digital photo frame’ form factor. There were at least three different virtual aquarium apps; others were demos of 3D shaders and particle effects, while a few featured high quality linear animations. Of these, Sylvia Apostol’s Bubblegum Rabbit, with its pre-rendered, soft-lit character animations, was the most impressive.

VoxatronThere were quite a few games; my favorites were those that truly took advantage of the display’s dimensionality in their gameplay. Avoider is simple and dumb: move a character around the screen to avoid mines and oil barrels falling from the sky. Presented in a top-down view, this felt really connected to the depth of the display, and immersed me to the point where the objects seemed to fill my field of vision.

My favorite of the games was Voxatron, a simulated voxel gaming system (complete with virtual game cartridges). Its minigames were simple variants on Robotron, presented in an cute low-fi style, with color and imagination. Voxatron was developed for 2D displays, but its fixed-perspective levels worked nicely within the Looking Glass’ physical constraints.

The library includes a few potentially useful utilities; a photo app allows the import and display of light-field photography, while a digital model importer allows for quick viewing of 3D assets.


Digging in

I wanted to put the device through its paces a bit more, so I downloaded the Unity SDK (tools are also provided for Unreal Engine and Javascript developers). The SDK includes a prefab object that automatically sets up the camera and pixel-mapping output required by Looking Glass; it can run in real-time, making development fairly effortless.

I built two quick test applications that I hoped would show off the strengths of the display. First, a simple variation on the classic Breakout arcade game; a wall of bricks appears at the back of the display, with a ball bouncing within the Looking Glass’s viewable area. At the front of the display, the user maneuvers a paddle in two dimensions, trying to knock the ball back toward the wall and eliminate bricks.

BreakoutThe game looked much better than anticipated; the simple brick wall, without having any detail or texture, benefited greatly from the dimensionality. The paddle appeared blurry, though; shifting the whole game deeper within the viewable area sharpened the paddle but made the wall a bit soft, as the device has a sweet spot for 3D focus (more on this below).

Second, I built a simple Rubik’s Cube simulator (not my first!). Initially, the puzzle was a little too big for the display, leaving little negative space, but reducing it in size gave it a surprisingly tangible form. As with many 3D display formats, the Looking Glass works best with this type of isolated ‘floating’ object, whereas larger content tends to break the 3D illusion when it reaches the edges of the frame.


Nuts and Bolts

Of course, I was curious as to how exactly the device worked; fortunately, Looking Glass Factory is fairly transparent about this on their website. First, the device renders 45 distinct images of a scene from viewpoints across a 45-degree horizontal field of vision – the view doesn’t vary when looked at from higher or lower angles. The 45 views are then remapped pixel-by-pixel to match up with the device’s slanted lenticular overlay.

How it Works
Image: Looking Glass Factory

From each angle of view, the overlay reveals a blend of about 5 distinct images; while this makes the 3D seem incredibly smooth, it does result in visible blurriness when objects are too close or too far from the viewer. Note also that the device’s 2560 x 1600 resolution is divided into 45 distinct images; the actual resolution is only about 284 x 320 per view, but the frame blending makes this seem much higher.

The clear, prismatic lens aids in the illusion, defining the virtual 3D space and masking some of the awkward cropping – and with its sleek mirrored surfaces, it looks great. Good enough, in fact, that my biggest frustration was trying to see content from angles outside the 45-degree viewing area, at which point the dimensional effect was lost.


Rubik's CubeI owned an early lenticular LCD display about 15 years ago; people told me it gave them a headache. I had thought of this technology as a speedbump on the way to glasses-based 3D, so I’m pleased that Looking Glass Factory has found an effective way to rejuvenate it.

So many of my Kickstarter investments in new technology end up in the back of a storage cabinet, but I find the Looking Glass intriguing. I can see it being useful in exhibitions, given the right context and content – for example, displaying small scanned or virtual artifacts. Given the lack of an on/off switch and dedicated power connection, I’m not sure if the device has the robustness it would need for a public installation, but I’d be willing to give it a try, as it’s the rare ‘new’ technology device that felt magical and effortless from the moment I unboxed it.

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