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Leia is building a 3D empire on the back of the worst phone we’ve ever reviewed

A 200-person startup named after Star Wars’ Princess Leia may have quietly cornered the market on glasses-free 2D to 3D screens — after clawing its way back from one of the biggest gadget flops of the past decade.

Remember the Red Hydrogen, the 3D phone that crashed and burned so hard its founder decided it was time to retire? Leia is the company that designed its “holographic” screen, and the company has been relatively quiet since that experience. Walking into its private hotel room suite at CES 2024 in Las Vegas, my expectations were not particularly high!

So you can imagine my surprise to find five tables full of Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo and MSI products and prototypes, plus a brand-new 3D OLED phone — each featuring a eye-popping glasses-free 3D screen from Leia.

That Acer SpatialLabs tech that’s wowed us at CES after CES? Acer uses Leia. Asus’ competing Spatial Vision is Leia technology, too. When it comes to switchable 2D to 3D screens, Leia co-founder and CEO David Fattal tells The Verge that his company is the only game in town.

It’s hard to show 3D on a 2D screen — but Leia’s headtracking let us use a popular old technique to capture this GIF.

Technically, those PC deals were all brokered by its competitor, Philips spinoff Dimenco — but Leia bought Dimenco just five months ago. In October, Leia purchased a treasure trove of stereo 3D patents from Philips as well. “We have the IP,” says Fattal, insisting that any other switchable 2D to 3D screen would be a copy of Leia’s technology.

Leia wouldn’t talk about Dell or Lenovo during our meeting, but it’s very clear the company’s building prototypes, at a minimum, for each.

I have a hard time believing it could be that simple, since Sharp’s switchable parallax barrier for the Nintendo 3DS predates his entire company. But it’s hard to argue with the tables full of prototypes around the room. Even Lenovo — which tells The Verge its upcoming 27-inch autostereoscopic monitor is based on different tech — had two laptops on display in Leia’s suite. Fattal confirms both the Lenovo and Dell machines I saw are prototypes explicitly built for those PC makers, not mockups.

Leia’s most advanced prototype is a $10,000 8K monitor housed in what’s unmistakably a Dell chassis, and I would use it for hours if given the chance. That’s something I’ve never said about flat-screen 3D before. No, we’re still not talking about tiny space princesses getting projected into the real world — but definitely better quality than those disposable glasses at the movie theater.

One of the original Gaussian Splat examples, it’s a feast in 3D, with incredibly lifelike reflections and diffusion. The dried leaf fans looked crisp; I felt like I could make out texture on the table.

The company started me off gazing at Sketchfab models of a badass warrior and a New Balance shoe, then this series of Gaussian Splats, a new 3D scanning technique that turns photographs into millions of tiny points painted into a scene that can be rendered like a video game. Each time, the effect was awesome. The shoe popped out life-size into 3D space for me to inspect from every angle; the Splats were like having a window into ethereal yet photorealistic oil paintings. I could count the fine stalks of foliage in a detailed custom model of a house covered in greenery, too.

Then, I played a few minutes of Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 8K in stereo 3D. Not every game natively supports side-by-side stereo like Tomb Raider, unfortunately, but I could see myself tackling an entire game this way that I’d be pained to play in VR. Watching a 3D trailer for the graphically marvelous Avatar: The Way of Water, I felt an unmistakable urge to watch 3D movies on this screen.

A flat image of Tomb Raider running on the 32-inch monitor.

Like Dimenco, Leia started as a spinoff. Fattal and his co-founders were working at HP Labs on ways to move data optically through computer chips when they were suddenly interrupted by an alarm, he told Forbes columnist Charlie Fink in 2020:

We were caught in a fire drill, and had to leave the lab with everything we had in our hands. We all gathered in the parking lot. 

It was a bright, sunny day. The sun was acting pretty much like a laser beam, with very directional light. As it heated the surface of the wafers we saw all kinds of cool patterns emerge, which was due to the directionality of the structures. At first, we didn’t even notice what was happening until the people around us were like hey, that’s super cool, what do you have in your hand? So that’s how it all started. 

Though he spent “maybe the most excruciating eight months of my life” negotiating to buy the patent applications from HP, we’re no longer looking at quite the same tech that powered the Red phone. For one thing, Dimenco’s optics can go above the display, making them compatible with thin OLED panels, whereas Leia’s original optics were only designed to go underneath LCDs.

Fattel also tells me the company initially made the mistake of focusing on providing multiple static viewing angles — a small number of preset “sweet spots” where you can place your head to get the proper 3D effect from the screen.

The problem with that, as anyone who’s used an original Nintendo 3DS (or Hydrogen) will tell you, is you can get headaches. If you move your head out of the sweet spot where the left image meets your left eye and the right image meets your right, the resulting “crosstalk” can lead to blur or worse. Most people I know who used the original 3DS did it with 3D turned off.

The New Nintendo 3DS was a rare consumer example of an autostereoscopic screen with face-tracking — but it came too late to save that wave of 3D screens.

That’s why the 2014 New Nintendo 3DS came with a head-tracking camera, infrared sensor, and machine learning to dynamically adjust the sweet spot as you move, and every Leia screen uses similar tech today. Fattal says Leia’s single-camera system uses computer vision to find your face, and machine learning trained on faces to figure out how far yours might be from the screen. Then, it sends voltage to an ultra-thin liquid crystal to change its refractive index so the proper image is aimed at each eye, based on a “physical model of how light propagates out of that system.”

The real trick, says Fattal, is also about making that secondary “3D cell” so thin and unobtrusive, you can comfortably use the underlying LCD or OLED screen as a normal 2D monitor the rest of the time. There is at least one compromise: I can see tiny diagonal etchings on every screen in Leia’s suite if I look closely, even the 8K monitor. But these monitors do seem competent in 2D, unlike, say, Sony’s Spatial Reality Display.

In 3D, the biggest compromise I saw in my hour-plus demo was resolution: you’re getting less than half the screen’s 2D resolution in 3D mode. That’s because it has to use some pixels to generate an image for your left eye, others for your right, plus some wiggle room for your head to move without crosstalk. “If it were 50 percent, as soon as I start moving I’d be infringing on the other view,” says Fattal.

A compact, portable Dell prototype monitor with a glasses-free 3D screen from Leia. While you can’t see the 3D working here, you can grasp how it’s made of left-eye and right-eye views.

With the 32-inch 8K display, I didn’t terribly mind the loss of resolution — but not all Leia’s demos are equal. Though I enjoyed the 3D effect, Ori and the Will of the Wisps looked a bit grainy on Acer’s 15.6-inch SpatialLabs View portable monitor, which has a 4K panel underneath and retails for $1,100 today. Notably, that’s the same pixel density as the 32-inch 8K screen, as both have 280 pixels per inch, but the larger monitor immediately felt like the better experience to me.

Will this tech be compelling on a sub-$10,000 display? I didn’t spend quite enough time to tell.

But even Leia’s smallest demo — the one on its first phone in five years — felt neat.

Leia isn’t revealing much about the phone, only that a major partner will ship the first 3D OLED phone, in Asia, by the end of the year. But the heavily disguised prototype I saw can already do quite a bit. I watched a 3D trailer for the latest Guardians of the Galaxy, viewed 3D photos, and did a 3D video chat with Fattal from across the room through Leia’s own app. (The company says it has a partnership with Zoom, but it didn’t have an official Zoom app to show yet.)

Sorry, Leia wouldn’t let us take pics of the phone

I also watched a modestly impressive demo of an app that claims to convert 2D YouTube videos into 3D ones in real time, with an adjustable 3D slider right on the screen. While the 8-billion-view “Despacito” definitely has the typical awkward billboarding effects you see with fake 3D (where people and objects sometimes seem flat like a billboard even if they occupy 3D space), the prototype’s 1080p screen generally seemed capable of creating a small but convincing 3D effect, with Guardians of the Galaxy objects popping out at least half an inch toward my face.

While I could definitely see the phone screen’s diagonal Leia matrix if I looked closely at the 2D screen, Fattal says the final version will be higher resolution at 1440p instead of 1080p.

And yes, it’s already far better than the Red Hydrogen, I can confidently say, because Fattal brought along an original Red Hydrogen to our demo.

Leia co-founder and CEO David Fattal with his Red Hydrogen.

A funny story about that: Fattal says he’s still using the Red Hydrogen today, and not just in a “I bring it to demos” way.

“Since 2018, this has been my only phone,” he claims.

Yes, that would mean the worst phone we’ve ever reviewed has been his daily driver since 2018, ever since Red founder Jim Jannard confronted him about when he was going to switch to a phone using his own technology.

When I call him on what I presume is bullshit, he says no, take a look — “it has everything!” he says. He shows me his corporate Slack, his Zoom, his notifications, his credit cards, his Southwest flight check-in, recent 3D photos of his kids. His wife calls while he’s showing me the phone, and he briefly walks away to take the call. The phone is absolutely not in showcase condition — it’s beat up, scuffed, the back panel bulging presumably due to a swollen battery. There are two obvious impact marks on the screen.

He should probably get that back panel bulge looked at.

He says the lack of software updates can make some things difficult, since it’s still on Android 9, but most apps he wants to use are there. He does all his ChatGPT searches on the Red Hydrogen, he says.

Why? He says he’s just a loyal guy, it’s the only phone that can take those 3D photos of his family, and he likes how it’s a conversation starter for his company’s technology. People ask him about it on flights.

“The Red Hydrogen project was the coming out of Leia,” he says. “It shaped the company in many ways.” While Fattal says the company had enough financial runway to survive without Jannard’s funding, the Red founder believed in Leia enough to sign an exclusive deal that helped Leia develop its entire suite of stereo 3D apps.

Lots of wear on this phone — but it’s the only phone ever made with his company’s brand name on the back.

“The first thing he did at the meeting: he had a mockup of Hydrogen and he put it on the table and said, ‘I want your technology in this device,’” Fattal recalls. “The whole company was effectively working for Jim for 18 months.”

In fact, the deal meant Leia was still signed to Red for a time after the Hydrogen phone flopped. “There was going to be a Hydrogen 2, we worked on it for six months,” says Fattal. But when Jannard decided to retire, canceling the entire Hydrogen project, Leia had to change gears fast. The company pivoted its supplier to a tablet, the Lume Pad, which attracted the interest of the much bigger ZTE. ZTE, in turn, released a successor overseas called the Nubia Pad 3D to prove out the market. It was an expensive device at $1,500, but the company still managed to shift around 10,000 units, he says.

ZTE might not be the only Chinese company interested in Leia’s tech. Fattal says that China Mobile was also impressed by the tablet, and hints that a future phone might be paired with a native streaming service hosted by a cellular carrier. He says that a “consortium of companies led by China Mobile” and “content companies like Tencent” are “seriously talking about 3D.”

“Carriers are trying to find a reason to justify 5G, and 3D is a great story for that,” he says.

I’m not yet convinced that 3D is coming back, a decade after its last ignominious death — but I do know that most people never saw 3D at its best. They didn’t experience proper per-eye 3D movies and games without crosstalk like you get in a VR headset. And if 3D is coming back thanks to the Apple Vision Pro and Meta Quest and associated spatial video, I do believe many people will want ways to see that content without goggles on their face.

Perhaps Leia and its partners can ride that wave.

Photography by Sean Hollister / The Verge

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