MIT-Spun Startup Lumii Is Creating Glasses-Free 3-D Technology

Say goodbye to those goofy looking glasses.

Lumii GIF

Imagine a day when you can watch a 3-D movie without having to grab the requisite 3-D glasses from a random bin outside the theater.

Lumii is trying to make that vision a reality. The Boston startup is changing the way companies build 3-D displays by replacing the optics in everyday LCD panels with software.

“Our vision is that, one day, you will take out your phone and you’ll see a 3-D, interactive hologram popping out of it,” says cofounder Tom Baran. “You won’t need to wear those goofy glasses.”

The software is spun out of work Baran and his fellow cofounders, Matthew Hirsch and Daniel Leithinger, completed at MIT. While researching computational displays (essentially, how images display on a screen) and camera systems at the MIT Media Lab, Hirsch discovered you could create a virtual image by altering how LCD panels are layered and adding in some software. Leithinger was simultaneously focused on tangible interfaces, developing surfaces that could three-dimensionally change shape, as Baran studied signal flow algorithms—the kind of computation at the core of Lumii.

The research started gaining national media attention—in 2012, the New Scientist encouraged readers to “get ready to chuck away [their] 3-D glasses.” The trick then became commercializing their work. Lumii incorporated this May to make that possible, and applied to startup accelerator MassChallenge.

“There’s a lot you have to do to take something out of the lab and into people’s hands,” Baran says. “You want to make sure it looks as good to everyone walking up to it as it does in the research papers.”

The team has been developing prototypes of their product, using resources in the MADE@ MassChallenge lab, which provides startups access to rapid prototyping equipment, such as laser cutters and 3-D printers.

But Lumii isn’t a hardware company.

“We can run as a company that looks a lot more like a software company than a hardware company,” Hirsch says, “and that’s really a positive for the industry. It’s much easier to innovate quickly in the software space.”

The team plans to sell their algorithm to consumer electronics manufacturers, which can change the layers of LCD panels in their products to accommodate the Lumii technology. Lumii integrates their software to run between those panels to create the 3-D effect. Other uses include interactive signs that could be hung in storefront windows, or kiosks that would allow customers to see 3-D versions of the products they’re shopping for.

“It provides a new way of engaging customers in a retail situation,” Baran explains, noting, “When you take a look at all the flat displays in the world, there’s a lot of opportunity to replace them with the technology we have.”

Lumii won $50,000 in this year’s MassChallenge awards to test that hypothesis, and is now letting others try their features by creating Lumii Holiday Cards with a 3-D effect. All you need are transparency sheets, scissors, super glue, a printer, and the team’s special holiday PDF, which can be downloaded here.

Maybe next year, we could be seeing glasses-free 3-D displays under our Christmas tree, as well.