The tech world is agog over glasses-free 3D and its potential to make sci-fi dreams come true. But you’d never guess its next-gen roots were planted firmly on British soil. In the sleepy city of Oxford. Sharp’s scientists cooked up the parallax barrier technology back in 2002. Here are its vital statistics, along with nine other secret British inventions.
Sharp Laboratories of Europe is nestled just a few minutes from Oxford’s dreaming spires and halls of learning, famous across the globe. The building might not have the global glamour of its high profile neighbours, but behind its doors Sharp’s boffins are quietly changing the world. Back in 1992, Sharp’s industrious scientists began researching 3D displays. Building on the company’s existing LCD expertise to create prototypes using two screens at 90 degrees from each other, sandwiching optics which sent each LCD’s image to different eyes. It was ingenious, but bulky. It wasn’t until 1994 that Sharp’s team achieved glasses-free 3D with a single flat panel screen. The first versions were dubbed “3D-only displays” since they were unable to show 2D images, and the 3D effect was limited to a small “sweet spot”, requiring the viewer to position themselves a certain distance from the screen. In 1996 the technology had advanced to include a “sweet spot indicator” to help the user position themselves correctly. This feature was unique to Sharp.
Now in 2011, almost 19 years after development began, glasses-free 3D is taking the tech world by storm. Nintendo’s new 3DS games console is captivating gamers across the globe and prototype TVs are wowing audience at gadget shows every couple of months. It’s all possible thanks to Sharp, and its industrious scientists beavering away, silently in the heart of the UK.
Xbox Kinect: Secretly developed in the UK
Glasses-free 3D gaming isn’t the only innovation to spring forth from the brainpower of the UK’s engineers. Microsoft’s jaw-flooring Xbox Kinect technology was first shown off in the glitzy surroundings of the E3 games show in Los Angeles. What’s less well known is its birth took place in the UK, at Microsoft’s Cambridge research laboratory. Kinect’s motion-sensing smarts were developed in Blighty, after the American Xbox team demonstrated their fledgling 3D technology to its scientists. The Brits took that germ of an idea and ran with it, developing a computer system that learned and taught itself as more and more information was fed in. “The idea was that we would teach the computer with lots of different people of lots of different shapes and sizes in lots of different poses and the computer will learn how to distinguish one part of your body from another part,” says Dr Jamie Shotton, one of Microsoft’s Cambridge researchers.
It was one of the world’s largest machine learning projects in the history of computing, letting the Xbox Kinect system function perfectly and immediately, thanks to the ingenuity of Britain’s publicity-shy researchers.
World Wide Web: A UK invention
The Brits didn’t invent the Internet. That was the work of the US Military. But Sir Tim Berners-Lee was the first to use it for anything useful to civillians. His invention of the World Wide Web is the reason you’re reading these words right now. He began work on the web in 1989 while working at the CERN Laboratory near Geneva, building on the concept of Hypertext to create a system that would blend existing transmission protocols with the ability to make rich pages of interlinked content. Without realising it at the time, Tim Berners-Lee had stumbled upon the recipe for mankind’s greatest technological achievement to date. In 1990 Berners-Lee built a prototype, along with the world’s first web browser and editor. The application, simply called worldwideweb let the first generation of web users connect to the first ever web server. The CERN HTTPd server went live, and the first web site went live on it on 6 August 1991.
It was a landmark achievement, but Berners-Lee makes it all sound simple: “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da! — the World Wide Web,” he said in 1998, seven years after its inception.