Technology: Opening Pandora’s box

Wait! Don’t jump into the 3D HDTV pool too soon.

Toy Story 3_521 (photo credit: (Disney/Pixar via Bloomberg))
Toy Story 3_521
(photo credit: (Disney/Pixar via Bloomberg))
Confused about 3D HDTV and whether it makes sense to buy one? Call it bad luck or sheer stupidity, but the decision to introduce 3D HDTV during a global economic meltdown raised a lot of eyebrows over the past 24 months. Manufacturers of flat-panel HDTVs, such as Panasonic and Samsung, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology, which has been around in various incarnations for more than 50 years, and the results so far have been quite mixed.
It is hard to get an accurate number from specific manufacturers, but close to 1.8 million 3D HDTVs were sold by Samsung last year. That number will have to grow exponentially for the format to have a legitimate chance of succeeding. George Lucas’s planned conversion of the Star Wars series from 2D to 3D, with the first film showing in theaters in 2012, has created a stir in Hollywood, but one wonders if it will be enough to convince consumers to open their wallets.
The 2009 release of James Cameron’s Avatar was a watershed moment for 3D technology, one that Hollywood banked on for the better part of two years, although the quality of the films that have followed have been noticeably inferior. With the exception of animated films such as Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me, audiences have found little to get excited about, and a great deal of resentment has developed over the increased cost of viewing 3D films in movie theaters. An American family of four can easily spend more than $100 for one outing, including popcorn and drinks.
Cameron might have convinced himself that 3D is the future of television and filmmaking, but he is certainly not in the majority.
A major hurdle facing manufacturers is the cost involved with setting up a 3D home theater. It took many years for consumers to accept flat-panel televisions, not to mention high definition formats such as Blu-ray, so it should come as no surprise they are reluctant to spend $3,000-$7,000 to replace what they already have for a brand new 3D plasma or LCD HDTV, 3D-enabled Blu-ray player, multiple pairs of 3D glasses and a receiver which can pass through a 3D video signal and high resolution surround formats.
Why should anyone consider such an expenditure if the future of the format is not even secure?
From a technical perspective, the current selection of 3D HDTVs offers the best 2D performance from a flat-panel; films such as Avatar and Toy Story 3 look absolutely beautiful on 2D Blu-ray. If you buy a quality set and have it calibrated, you might be quite shocked at how much better it makes your existing film library look.
One caveat to enjoying 3D in the home; do not bother pulling the trigger if you cannot afford anything in the 50”+ size range, as the 3D image needs to really fill your field of view to be worthwhile, unless your room is quite small and you sit unusually close to the screen.
The current crop of active shutter and passive 3D glasses is very expensive, fragile and not compatible with 3D HDTVs from competing manufacturers. You cannot walk over to Boaz’s house and watch ESPN 3D on his Samsung set with your glasses from Panasonic. Not a brilliant move by any of the major players, but that is the way things stand at the moment.
FOR THE local consumer, there is certainly a large selection of very high quality 3D flatpanel HDTVs to select from, but there is a real dearth of content to watch once you get it home. Unless you have access to satellite programming from the US, Europe or Japan, you are restricted to the two dozen or so 3D Bluray films currently available for purchase.
That number is going to grow significantly this year, but the jury is still out on the financial viability of 3D films coming out of Hollywood, so it is not a given that every film is going to be shot in 3D. The sad truth is that a significant number of the films being advertised as 3D are really conversions from 2D, and many of them look rather unimpressive.
The 3D technology is already showing up in smart phones, laptops and personal video game players, and this is where growth is likely. Manufacturers have figured out how to make 3D work on really small handheld devices without the need for glasses, but do not expect to see that in your living room anytime soon. Toshiba has introduced two small 3D monitors that do not require glasses, but the sets have limited viewing sweet spots and are extremely expensive. Glasses-free 3D HDTV is three to five years away at the earliest.
Manufacturers are loath to admit this, but there are a number of potential physical problems associated with watching 3D, especially for prolonged periods. As a reviewer, I have suffered serious headaches after watching more than two or three 3D films in one week, and it is certainly tiring on your eyes. Children are the target audience for a majority of the 3D films, and while I endorse any of the quality 3D films coming from Pixar and Walt Disney, I would suggest taking a break if watching at home with little children.
Properly implemented, viewing 3D content at home can be a very immersive experience. However, that enjoyment comes at a high price, and with so little content currently available, it raises some legitimate questions about jumping in with both feet; 3D HDTV is unlikely to fail, but there is a growing feeling among those of us who review technology for a living that it is more likely to become a secondary feature of your flat-panel HDTV or projector, rather than the de facto standard for viewing all media.