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Glasses-free 3-D ; Cutting-edge prototypes have techies abuzz

This month, technology lovers from around the world descended on Las Vegas for the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, an annual gathering of geekdom that features the latest in personal gadgetry. Among the stars of the show were 3-D televisions -- not only the sets that are populating your local electronics store, but newer prototypes that answer the cry of consumers everywhere who don't want to wear those dorky 3-D glasses.

More than 2,200 miles away, Ken Conley sat at his desk in a small office park in Indian Trail, N.C. Unlike last year, he decided not to go to Vegas for the show. "Now," he said, "I wish I had."

On display in Vegas were glasses-free 3-D TVs from companies that included Sony and Toshiba. They're the next potential big thing in visual displays -- made possible, in part, by Conley. At 77, he finds himself at the edge of new technology. And Conley is there for a very old reason: He's never quite satisfied with his work.

For the past quarter-century, the North Carolina State graduate has been a pioneer in the production and use of lenticular sheets, a plastic that is placed over images to give them a three-dimensional effect. Until recently, the technology has been used for still images, like the 3-D poster promoting the movie blockbuster "Avatar."

But now, his product and ideas are being used for moving images, including those on laptops and portable Blu-ray players. Engineers from 3-D manufacturers send their units to Conley for customized lenticular sheets. Conley and his wife of 50 years, Mary Ellen, founded Micro Lens 14 years ago in the basement of their home.

Micro Lens is the world's leading producer of these lenticular sheets. So how did Conley become an industry leader? A brief history of 3-D: The origin of autostereoscopic displays began in the 17th century, when French painter G.A. Bois-Clair composed paintings that broke two images down into stripes and placed them behind a grid of vertical bars.

In the mid-1800s, English and Scottish inventors developed the stereoscope, a device that used lenses or mirrors to combine two photos of the same object into one 3-D image. By the early 20th century, film pioneers were doing the same with moving pictures.

The 3-D technology enjoyed its first heyday in the 1950s, with several movies employing the effect, and it has seen a recent resurgence that began in the 1990s with several documentaries using IMAX 3-D technology. The effect also was popular in advertising, thanks in part to lenticular technology, which began to boom in the 1940s and was used for products that included baseball cards and, of course, Cracker Jack prizes.

In the mid-1990s, Conley started Micro Lens, which sold lenticular products and the means to produce them to companies that wanted to make 3-D images. His timing was perfect. A new wave of technological advances was bringing computers and high-quality ink jet printers to small businesses, allowing Conley to offer lenticular sheets for 3-D products in smaller quantities.

In the late 1990s, a friend sent Conley a computer program that allowed users to place one picture on top of another and print it -- perfect for 3-D photos. To make that process simpler, Conley created a lenticular sheet to go on a computer monitor, so artists could see their images in 3-D.

It was 2002, and a new thought came to him: If his lenticular sheet could make a monitor show a still image in 3-D, why couldn't he do the same for moving images?

How does 3-D work? The simple answer: Your brain takes the separate images your left and right eyes see and gives them depth. 3-D technologies essentially do the same. Conley said: "Your brain is being tricked."

For 3-D movies, that trickery is performed by 3-D glasses, which separate the left and right images for your brain. But people don't want to wear dorky glasses while they watch TV every night.

Four years ago, companies exploring how they could do 3-D without glasses approached was Conley. Now he is charged with making lenticular sheets that match the pitch and pixel arrangements of each TV. Conley is optimistic. "I think: 'I can make this better.' "