As I roamed the booths of the big consumer electronics companies at CES, there was absolutely no question of what they think the next big thing is: 3D television. Every TV manufacturer devoted a substantial portion of its booth to 3D demos, and I found they ranged from mildly interesting to very impressive. But I think it is going to be a while before 3D in the home becomes pervasive.
There’s no question there will be an explosion of 3D content this year. Hollywood studios were planning it anyway and the runaway success of Avatar guarantees it. The finalization of a 3D standard for Blu-ray Discs will make studio content available for home use. And by mid-year, cable and satellite TV systems will start experimenting with 3D broadcasts, even though only a tiny minority homes will have the equipment needed to display it.
I think there are three reasons why the ramp-up of home 3D will be relatively slow. First, the timing is bad. The economy, though improving, is still weak and consumers don’t have much inclination to make big durable goods purchases. And household have just completed the biggest replacement cycle for TV sets since the advent of color, as analog CRTs were replaced by HD flat screens. Most of those flat-panel sets have years of life left in them.
But there are also technological impediments. Probably the biggest is the need to wear those wonky glasses. There have been experiments with no-glasses-required 3D, but the technology isn’t close to being ready. It only works when the viewer is centered on the axis of the display and is located at a very narrow range of distances from the screen. These limitations might work for computer displays; they won’t do for TVs.
There are three technologies that require glasses, which an deliver a separate image to each eye, that do work. Anaglyph, a variant of those red and blue glasses from The Creature from the Black Lagoon is not being used with TV. Of the two remaining technologies circular polarization is cheaper, but active shutter is better. Active shutter, which is used in NVIDIA’s GeForce 3D Vision adapter for PCs, the lenses are liquid-crystal units that open and close in sync with a 120-Hz. screen image, so each eye sees 60 frames per second. They work fine, even for folks who wear glasses, but make you look kind of weird in your own living room.
Then there’s the fact that the 3D images often aren’t all that great. The demos shown by TV makers tend to focus heavily on animation (especially from Pixar) for the simple reason that the inherent unreality of animation masks the lack of reality in the 3D.
The biggest problem with the images is what I call the View-Master effect after the old stereoscopic picture view. In real 3D as perceived by your eyes, that is, the everyday real world, the progression of rounded images from foreground to background is smooth and continuous. In 3D television what you see often looks more like flat images arranged in sevaral planes at different depths. It’s not awful, but it’s not really natural-looking. People working on 3D tell me this is to some extent inherent in the technology, but can be ameliorated significantly by careful encoding. To my complete lack of surprise, the best 3D I saw was from Pixar, especially in the trailer for the upcoming Toy Story 3. The worst was what looked like hastily converted video for a demonstration of Direct TV 3D.
The 3D process also seems to have a problem with rapid motion, especially in the “Z” direction toward or away from the viewer. I’m a little surprised that one of the first broadcast 3D efforts will be from ESPN, since real-time encoding of live sports action is likely to prove difficult. A recent 3D demo of 3D on the giant screens in Dallas Cowboys Stadium was a disaster; an angry crowd led stadium officials to turn the system off after a few minutes. Of course, the spectators did have a real 3D game down on the field to watch.
The one area where I think 3D will be an instant hit is gaming. Neither Sony nor Microsoft has announced 3D plans for the PlayStation 3 or Xbox, or their eventual successors. But you can get 3D gaming on PCs today with the GeForce Vision 3D kit. In addition to the kit, you need a PC with an appropriate graphics adapter and a 120 Hz. display.
Because of the paucity of 3D content at the moment, all of the manufacturers were showing mostly the same content in their demos, which made comparisons much easier. All of them were pretty good, but I though the best was Panasonic’s plasma displays using active-shutter glasses.
Former BusinessWeek columnist Steve Wildstrom is serving as a guest blogger at CES for NVIDIA, for which he is receiving compensation. The opinions expressed in his posts are his own, and not necessarily shared by NVIDIA.