3D TV? Too Soon Now, but One Day You Will Want It

3d tv has arrived too soon
3D TV...I'm not that impressed. It's likely to fail before it succeeds.

Here’s an offer for you: I’ll give you some of the most amazing entertainment you’ve ever seen, and I’ll even put it in your own home. What’s the catch? High prices, limited content, and some of the most horrendously dorky and inconvenient glasses in the world. I’m talking about the coming “3D TV revolution” that was the talk of CES this year. All the big name companies for TV production (Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, LG, Panasonic, etc) had at least one 3D TV set at CES, and most had entire regions of their floor space dedicated to promoting the innovation. Panasonic’s VT25 series won Best in Show and will likely be hitting retailers near you in the second quarter of this year. So, the question we’re all asking here: is 3D TV worth it? No, not yet. Now, that’s just my opinion. It happens to be right, of course. If you want to know why, read on.

The Technology

First, I should explain what you’re getting. 3D technology relies on getting a separate image into your left and right eye. These two images get overlapped in your brain and with the correct differences between the two, the overlapped image appears to have depth. In 3D movies, the projector will produce the two images with differently polarized light. You then wear special (and flimsy) glasses that have different polarizing films on the left and right eye. This blocks the appropriate image and lets you get that separated-then-overlapped 3D effect in your head. Cool beans.

Now, some 3D TVs work in this same manner. But Panasonic, Toshiba, and others took the process to another level. Instead of passive polarized lenses, they’ve created special glasses that can shutter each eye separately. So, the TV talks to the glasses and instead of placing two images next to each other in the space on the screen, the set runs them alternating in time. You see right, then left, then right…at 240 Hz. This produces a crisper 3D effect with all the fluid motion you expect from your HD TV. Again, pretty cool.

The problem is that high speed shuttering glasses cost money. Probably around $50 or so a pop. And every person who wants to watch 3D TV has to wear them. You can’t have half the audience with and half without. Sans glasses, the specially alternating 3D image is strangely blurred. When I stared at it too long at CES I got a headache. Even with the traditional movie theater system, the view without glasses is not watchable. If you want to love 3D TV you have to learn to love 3D glasses.

Expensive accessories are a problem with many technologies. The cost for glasses is compounded by the increase costs of the sets themselves. Now, most companies are already targeting the 50+ inches sets for 3D conversion, so adding thousands of dollars to the price won’t be so noticeable to some of those buyers. Still, running at 240 Hz, and HD takes high-end electronics and you’re going to have to pay for them if you want to enjoy the new technology.

The Content

The question is, will you really enjoy 3D TV? I’ve seen my fair share of 3D movies. Most were pretty bad. I still quote Beowulf to amuse my friends, and the less said about Journey to the Center of the Earth, the better. (Why must you profane my precious science, Brendan Fraser, why?)Avatar, however, is selling like butter-dipped hotcakes, and many children’s movies do really well with the 3D add-on. UP and Coraline were both successful and enjoyable.

But we’re not talking about 3D movies, we’re talking about 3D TV. Yes, more and more movies are being watched in the home, but it’s broadcast television that dominates the use of home sets. CES was awash with sports, video games, and nature shows that have been upgraded to 3D. Toshiba’s Cell TV even has a (semi) universal 2D to 3D converter so that you can watch everything with the new effect. I expect other developers will have similar converters soon if they don’t already. Watching those TV demos I was completely unimpressed. 3D TV is cool looking when someone has gone to the trouble to really plan each 3D point of view. Most of the TV I saw at CES looked like a pop-up book version of what I see at home. The trouble is that you really only get two layers in most 3D videos. A truly rounded image takes finesse.

The truth is I’m just not that enamored with the actual 3D experience. Major television companies aren’t either, yet. DirectTV is still on the fence about whether or not it will provide 3D for its 25+ million subscribers. Sports producers are looking into it, as are video game companies, but many are waiting for formatting issues to get resolved. Like the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray debacle, 3D TV has several competing protocols and standards. Without a single uniform format, 3D TV can’t get out of the starting gates. Expect there to be stuttering and infighting while everyone decides on which standard will become dominate.

The Future

Still, I don’t think that 3D TV will die. It comes back to movies. 3D Blockbusters are selling well in theaters, and home DVD/Blu-ray purchases are now a vital part of the film industry. Studios need to leverage their 3D movies into the homes to make money. TV companies want to sell more TVs. All entertainment media outlets want an edge on their competitors. That’s financial pressure that will push 3D TVs into production even if they don’t face overwhelming public support. So 3D TV seems like it’s fated to come to market in force.

But I think it will fail at first, and continue to fail for a while. High prices and limited content will keep the niche for 3D TV fairly small. Then it will expand slowly into DirectTV or other specialty television media (high end cable?) Video games, which more often tolerate a limit on the number of people who can watch a screen at one time, may be at the forefront of getting people to purchase the more expensive sets. Eventually, and we’re talking years here, the technology will advance to where you don’t need glasses, and where the 3D image is not just two interposed layers. When the image you see isn’t just a moving pop-up book, but a true three dimensionally round object, people will flock to a new kind of television. At the same time, content will be of a high enough quality that 3D TV will seem very appealing.

That is, of course, supposing that we’re still all interested in TV by that point. The Internet is starting to change our taste in media. And there are technologies, like augmented reality, which could come in with a completely new hardware paradigm and take us away from TV screens and have us all wearing our own head mounted displays. I guess I’ll say this: If nothing better comes along, you’ll eventually want a 3D TV. That’s about as luke-warm of an endorsement as I can give, but hey, it’s a luke-warm technology.

[photo credit: Aaron Saenz]

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