Long before anyone expected, the era of glasses-free 3DTV is here. Although Toshiba had already announced 12-inch and 20-inch “no glasses” 3DTVs for the Japanese market, the appearance of 56-inch and 65-inch models at the CES has been something of a surprise. And that’s not to mention its embracing of polarised or “natural” (as it calls it) 3DTV tech, too.

More shocking is not only that the glasses-free TVs are slated to go on sale - in the US (and probably Japan) this year, but that they’re actually pretty darn good. Hidden away in darkness on Toshiba’s booth at CES 2011, these “game changers” (this year’s most over-used phrase) come in 56-inch and 65-inch flavours.

Able to display 3D images from a 3D Blu-ray player, these TVs are prototypes with some unconfirmed specifications (Toshiba wouldn't confirm our suspicions that LED backlighting was being used) though there are plenty of details available. Inside each is a CEVO Engine, a chipset developed by Toshiba that combines TriVector 2D to 3D conversion (which works on regular TV broadcasts, 2D Blu-ray and even still photos) and 3D Resolution+ (up scaling non-HD 3D sources, such as Sky’s 3D channel, to Full HD).

Both sets are able to play 2D footage and, best of all, have 4k2k resolutions. That is crucial for two reasons: the resolution seen by each eye simultaneously will roughly equate to a Full HD image, and the lens on front of the screen means that the overall image is a tad blurry. It’s also a detail that will make these two TVs very expensive; expect them to be right at the top of Toshiba’s line-up when they go on sale.

toshiba 56 and 65 inch glasses free 3dtvs eyes on image 2

Technically speaking, these lenticular or auto stereoscopic 3DTVs have nine views. That means it’s possible to see a 3D image from nine separate positions, and only nine; stand anywhere else and an image full of flicker and ghosting is the result. In our demo, three distinct positions - or sweetspots - were physically marked on the floor with carpet tape in front of both TVs.

Despite relying on the same technology, the 56-inch and 65-inch models are quite different. The former, which was showing an animated sequence of Final Fantasy, didn’t show nearly as many front 3D effects as you’ll see in the current crop of active shutter 3DTVs. Those eye-popping, but gimmicky effects - such as when someone punches the screen, or drives a car right at you - are almost completely absent.

Instead there’s a lot more depth of field and an image that really pulls you into the action.

Displaying real-world images from Planet Earth on Blu-ray, the 65-inch proved even more involving, with greater depth on show. A sequence of a waterfall was entrancing, with the water dramatically pouring away from the rocks and into the canyon. Another more close-up shot of a boy blowing bubbles demonstrated more subtle effects; even when we stood away from the 65-incher’s sweetspots it was possible to see a clear 3D image, unlike on the more restrictive 56-inch version. Our only criticism is that the pixel grid is more obvious than on the smaller size, which does remove some believability.

More comfortable to watch than active shutter tech if standing in the right position, and surprisingly versatile with very involving 3D effects, the future looks good for auto stereoscopic 3D if those paltry nine viewing angles can be increased.

As always with 3D, it seems, whatever the underlying technology at play, it’s a case of the bigger, the better, with the bound-to-be-mega-bucks 65-inch version clearly ahead.

Toshiba is hoping to sell these glasses-free 3DTVs in the fourth quarter of this year, but a spokesperson stressed that engineers are hoping to add more views beforehand. There’s much work to be done, not only in terms of sweetspots, but in removing blur, but it’s a fascinating debut.