Future Tense: Thinking About 3D TV

Alex Castle

At the 2009 CES, Sony and Panasonic showed 3D HDTV as product concepts.  Nvidia showed off its ability to display games in 3D and several other smaller companies demonstrated various 3D technologies, some with polarized glasses, some with shutter-glasses.  I liked Sony’s demonstrations the best because they used lightweight polarized glasses.

At the 2010 CES, Sony and Panasonic and other manufacturers demonstrated 3D  television products that will ship later this year.  Actually, any television with a refresh rate of 120hz or greater is ‘3D ready.’  You’ll still need synced shutter glasses and a 3D source, but the screen will be able to display both eye-images at a fast enough rate to avoid jitter.

At the 2011 and probably 2012 Consumer Electronics Shows, we’ll start seeing second-generation and third-generation 3D products, by which time the technology will have matured, the prices will have dropped, and we will have settled into a standard for 3D HDTV.

But some industry pundits have already weighed in, suggesting that 3D is a fad, isn’t something that consumers really want, and doesn’t lend itself to home viewing—particularly because the ‘goofy glasses’ are a hindrance.  Plus the 3D sets are expensive, most consumers haven’t finished paying for their current HDTV sets, so why would they want to replace them this year?

Well, yes and no.  I don’t think any of the manufacturers of 3D-ready sets are expecting to hit significant market penetration this year or even next.

First they need to demonstrate that 3D is a stable technology that offers a significant enhancement to the viewing experience.  That will take time, the same way educating the public about the enhanced quality of HDTV images took time—a process that is still ongoing today.  Sony’s tests have shown that football, basketball, and soccer games can look spectacular in 3D and Nvidia’s demonstrations have shown that many games running on 3D engines can benefit as well.

Nevertheless, no matter how good the demonstrations are, it’s the consumer who’s going to make the ultimate judgment about the value of 3D television.  And there are some serious issues to be addressed.

1) You really need a big screen.   The bigger the better.  3D on a small screen is like Imax on an Ipod.  Why bother?

2) Shutter glasses tend to be heavy and require recharging.  I prefer polarized glasses.  (My experience with early shutter glass technology was fatiguing.)

3) Loss of brightness.  The glasses dim the image.  And each eye is getting only half the light from the screen.  The brightness can be pumped up to compensate, but the issue of light loss remains.

4) Is there enough program content to justify the expense?  Not yet, but the library of program material is steadily growing.  And there are many classic oldies that 3D enthusiasts would love to see reissued.

But despite those issues, 3D could still be a very marketable product.  3D makes a movie feel like a special event.  The box office numbers of films released in 3D show that audiences like 3D movies.  And Sony’s broadcasts of 3D sports events direct to theaters have also been successful.  O right now, the prognosis is optimistic.  The major studios are geared up for the next two years at least, so 3D is likely to have a continuing presence in the theaters.  And that suggests an inevitable migration to the home.

Just not right away.

A little history is in order.

The 525-line standard for American television was set in 1941, but actual commercial broadcasts did not begin began until after World War II.  By 1952, television had become widespread enough to represent serious competition for the movie industry.  Many of the most popular radio shows migrated quickly to television, in some cases even adapting the same scripts.  But it took the better part of ten years for television to reach 90% market penetration.  Televisions were expensive.

RCA (and subsidiary NBC) brought color television to the market in 1954.  At first, it was more of a curiosity than a hit.  The sets were hard to tune, the images were blurry, and people’s faces were often shades of green or purple, depending on how mistuned the set was.  But RCA and NBC persevered, despite ten years of deficits.  It wasn’t until 1964 RCA actually started showing a profit on color television sales.

Not coincidentally, that was about the same time that all three networks shifted to all-color broadcasting.  And this partly explains the look of Star Trek, The Original Series.  Knowing that the audiences were not yet skilled at tuning their sets, knowing that existing sets were not very good at subtleties of color, knowing that viewers would be impressed by bright colors, knowing that viewers would blame the technology if they saw anything that didn’t look good in color, NBC quietly advised producers to use bright simple hues.

Art directors, production designers, and directors of photography also had to allow for the limitations of existing film stock as well.  (Green was especially difficult.  What color is Kirk’s velour?  The fans argued about that one for a few years.)  So most shows filmed in the early days of color TV used dramatic primary colors.

And again, it took most of a decade for 90% market-penetration.  And while the timing may vary for different technologies (CDs, cell phones, DVDs, digital cameras, smart phones), there’s a definite cycle at work.  The initial resistance is consumer inertia, followed by consumer skepticism that the new technology is worth the cost.  Then the early adopters come in and pay a premium for the privilege of being on the cutting edge and beta-testing the hardware at home.  It isn’t until prices drop enough that the tech becomes a common commodity that market penetration is inevitable.  The release Sony’s Discman, the first CD player available for less than $300, triggered a dramatic upsurge in CD sales.

And—a large part of any technology cycle is simply waiting for the old technology to break, wear out, and lose market share, while the new technology co-opts the product niche.

This process of progressive market-penetration is nearing its final stages with HDTV sets and is gaining momentum with Blu-Ray players.  Despite some of the pundits saying that Blu-Ray will never replace DVDs (because download technology will make discs irrelevant) Blu-Ray sales continue to grow.  Another year or three and it’s possible that all disc-players on the market will be reasonably-priced Blu-Ray boxes.

Once you have a 120hz HDTV set and a Blu-Ray player in your home, you are 3D ready.  When the cost of glasses and a sync-box drops to $150, 3D becomes an easy impulse purchase.  All you’ll need is a reason.  Oh, hey—look, the Super Bowl will be in 3D this year!  Avatar will be on HBO-3D next week!  And, ohmygod, George Lucas has reprocessed Star Wars for 3D, we have to watch it!

So 3D is probably inevitable.  Whether you watch in 3D or not, the technology has grown to include 3D as a possibility.  And once it’s possible, if it’s profitable, it will happen.

You probably won’t watch everything in 3D.  You probably won’t want to.  A lot of television programming is background noise as we go through our daily lives, the box natters endlessly in the background, usually with the sound turned down.  Viewers aren’t going to pop on the glasses just to watch a breaking news bulletin.  But just as 3D turns movies into special events, it will likely be popular for event programming in the home as well.

Obviously, compatible 3D will take a few years, but the big players are betting that 3D programming will be a profitable market, especially for major sports events, important concerts, event movies and probably even some prime-time shows looking to pump their ratings.

3D is going to creep into our homes the same way every previous advance in consumer technology did, one day at a time.

David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles.  His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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