At a packed stall during the Computex show in Taiwan this week, young buyers excitedly put on 3D-enabling glasses that turned flat images on PC screens into solid objects.
3D, long reserved for movie theaters, is emerging as a profitable niche for the PC world even though it is not quite ready for the masses yet. Some big names in the chip and display sectors are developing new products, mostly targeting the niche but lucrative gaming computer market.
They are betting a new generation of displays and state-of-the-art processors could boost demand for the costly computer machines, which tend to shape PC design trends and influence mainstream buyers.
When you look at 3D movies, look at 3D games, you feel like you are inside the computer and the experience is very dramatic, said Nvidia CEO Huang Jen-hsun, whose company's demonstrations of 3D video games were a spotlight at the world's No. 2 PC fair.
By using special shutter glasses that connect wirelessly to personal computers, U.S. graphics chip maker Nvidia's (NVDA.O) new GeForce 3D Vision System brought stereoscopic experience to buyers at Computex.
In May, Intel Corp (INTC.O) announced a $12 million investment over the next five years to create a visual computing research center in Europe focused on 3D imaging.
Besides gaming enthusiasts who are keen to pay hundreds of dollars for new PCs, 3D imaging could soon expand to films on DVD and advanced medical and scientific research, supporters say.
Gaming PCs may be just a blip in a PC market estimated by research firm IDC at $244 billion last year, but margins of such PCs and other accessories, including keyboards and laser mice, are fatter than those used in regular computers.
On average, we are talking about 10-15 percent more here, in terms of margins, Victor Lai, a Gigabyte (2376.TW) technical marketing supervisor said, standing next to a line of boxy gaming PCs that start at about $2,000 or higher at the firm's booth.
Acer (2353.TW), Taiwan's most recognizable PC brand, allowed users to play 3D games on the company's laptops at the show.
Cellphone chip supplier Qualcomm (QCOM.O) announced an upgraded version of its 'snapdragon' chips which support 3D graphics on smartphones and smaller computers.
Jon Peddie Research, a U.S.-based research and consulting firm for graphics and multimedia, in a report forecast that the total PC gaming hardware market would grow to $30.7 billion in 2012, up about two-thirds from this year.
SPILL OUT OF SCREEN
Major display makers in Asia, including South Korea's Samsung Electronics (005930.KS), Japan's Panasonic (6752.T) and Taiwan's Chi Mei (3009.TW), are also jumping into the 3D bandwagon as they search for the next big thing.
Without requiring viewers to wear glasses, Chi Mei's 3D LCD monitors rely on a special two-layer glass structure to display 3D images, yielding more lifelike and gripping games, and reducing eye fatigue that may result from extended game-playing.
Vivitek Corp, a start-up firm specializing in 3D in Taiwan, believes consumers will eventually value the 3D innovation and the use of such new technology in TVs at home and some large signs outdoor may help build economies of scale.
Someday you will see 3D signs outside many restaurants and movie theaters, or they will be in casinos in Las Vegas to attract gamblers, Gill Chen, a Vivitek sales manager, said at the firm's booth, where a monster LCD TV shows 3D golden coins spilling out of the screen from a shiny slot machine.
They are tailor made and many companies have shown interest in our products, she said but declined to identify them or give any financial forecasts.
The market for three-dimension displays is expected to grow 95 percent annually to reach $15.8 billion in 2015, making up about 9 percent of the total display market by then, according to Displaybank, a South Korean market research firm.
Still, some critics say a lack of a common standard for 3D contents might hold the market back, and it may be several years before these niche display firms making foray into the area see meaningful returns from their investments.
The biggest challenge is to go mainstream, said Kevin Liao, an analyst at DisplaySearch, another market researcher.
I don't know how much resources other companies will invest. There are some demos in the market now but there is lots of room for improvement, Liao said.