Is 3D going to be the biggest revolution in television since, well, television? Or the dampest squib since Betamax video?
To judge by this year's CES technology fair in Las Vegas and the more recent IFA electronics fest in Berlin, 3D is simply massive. All the major TV companies — Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, LG and the rest — ensured that 3D TV totally dominated the Berlin event.
It wasn't just 3D TV sets either. Panasonic showed the first consumer-level 3D video camera, which will allow home users to shoot their own 3D films, the £1,500 HDC-SDT750. Sony showcased the first 3D home projector, the yet-to-be released WV90. Panasonic demonstrated a system for delivering downloadable 3D films. Many companies showed players ready for 3D Blu-ray discs when they arrive, and several camera makers premiered still cameras that give a 3D effect by various means, to be viewed on such technology as a yet-to-be-revealed Sony Vaio 3D laptop.
The picture couldn't have been clearer: you, consumer, will have 3D in your home before long, pretty much like
it or not.
The electronics industry has deemed it so. The film industry has deemed it so — although
Sky TV and Sony together
have gone most of the way
to perfecting 3D broadcasting of sports and entertainment events, most 3D 'content' we see on TV for the foreseeable future will be Hollywood cinema material. Oh, and the not-to-be-forgotten video games industry has deemed it so. Gamers say 3D enhances their enjoyment multifold.
Part of my job is to try to
put such... well, almost bullying, really (albeit dressed up as an exciting new consumer choice, which it is), into a proper, 3D perspective.
Now few people would disagree that colour was
an improvement on black
and white TV. Most people, although in fact probably only a slim majority, would agree, once they get to see it, that high definition TV is a great (although less dramatic) improvement on standard definition. A similar majority would agree that surround sound is a good way of making TV watching more fun and immersive. And, looking at another side of TV — the TV
set as furniture — most people would accept that modern
flatscreen TVs are a much better product than fat, space-hogging old CRT TVs.
Yet in the real world, colour TV (dating back in the UK only 40 years) is the only one of these innovations to have
truly taken off. As for HD, assuming consumers can tell the difference, and few can, it's not seen as a great priority. Surround sound, although it's easier to tell it's on, is similarly optional.
And 3D? Well, it's in its infancy, to be sure. The only dedicated 3D channel, on Sky in the UK, only went live last month.
But I have observed people watching trial Sky Sports broadcasts in pubs, and at IFA I watched journalists, electronics retailers and technology fans viewing 3D, and I got no sense at all of people being bowled over by it.
In the cinema too, which
has bet the proverbial farm on HD (partly, I suspect, because it's much harder to pirate on Blu-ray discs than normal films on standard DVDs) there is evidence that the excitement over Avatar's 3D release hasn't quite sustained.
There's no doubt that 3D works, and that it's vastly better now than in its surprisingly large number of iterations going right back to the 19th century. Most people can see the effect and appreciate it, although one of the many elephants in the 3D room is the proportion of the population that is stereo-blind and will be marginalised by
this revolution, if revolution it turns out to be. Estimates of 5, 10 per cent and higher have been put forward. (Another elephant is that content made specifically to showcase 3D
is largely rubbish.)
The key problem, however, is the glasses, which are universally disliked, whether the cheap 'passive' kind or the £100 or
so electronic 'active' variety, which supposedly improve the 3D effect but reportedly give some people headaches. It will be a minimum of three to five years, it is currently thought, before there's a decent form
of 3D screen that doesn't need glasses. By that time, who is to say that Hollywood won't have abandoned 3D, leaving little content for us to watch?
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