Toshiba develops breakthrough 3-D TV technology in Japan

Rieko Fukushima, a researcher at Toshiba, has developed a promising new way to eliminate the need for special glasses for 3-D viewing. At the same time, she has made news by cracking Japan's glass ceiling for women.

“I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tough as a woman,” Fukushima, 39, told The New York Times. It was she who led Toshiba's effort to develop the world's first “naked-eye” 3-D TV; a project she began nine years ago when she had just returned from maternity leave.

It's not known yet whether Toshiba can create a market for its new glasses-free 3-D TV sets, which it introduced in Japan in October and demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; however, Fukushima's success is already an inspiration to many in Japan.

“As a researcher, her ideas are cutting-edge,” Yuzo Hirayama, the head researcher at Toshiba's TV research unit, told the Times. “Her communication and networking skills also never cease to astound me.”

It was in 2002, after maternity leave for her first child, that Fukushima helped set up a new research and development team to explore the possibilities of 3-D displays. Toshiba was skeptical at the time as to whether 3-D technology could ever be commercialized.

From the start, Fukushima saw the future and always knew the viewing glasses that accompanied most 3-D technology would have to go. She proposed a new approach to the problem: developing an algorithm that draws on a Toshiba imaging processor called the Cell to display nine images for each frame. A sheet on the screen angles each image so the right eye sees only images meant for the right eye, while the left eye sees only images meant for the left eye.

A key challenge was making a TV that displays 3-D images even when viewed from wide angles. Toshiba has not entirely solved that problem: Its current models work best when viewed from within a 40-degree zone.

A big break for Fukushima and her project came at a companywide technology fair last May when an advanced prototype caught the eye of Norio Sasaki, Toshiba's president. After that an effort involving hundreds of engineers helped pushed production schedules forward as much as two years.

“2010 was supposed to be the year of the 3-D glasses,” she said. “We beat our rivals by going glassesless.”

Fukushima credits Toshiba with creating a hospitable environment for women who work there. Now she is held up as an example of a woman climbing Japan's corporate ladder. Nikkei Woman, a monthly magazine for businesswomen, named Fukushima its Woman of the Year last month.