Sony’s 3-D Gamble: Must-See TV or the Next Smell-o-Vision?

Pity the early technology adopters in this world. Just as they have accepted the fact that three years ago, they paid more than US$5,000 for a 42-inch flat-screen HDTV that now sells for close to $1,000, a new image starts to coalesce in front of their eyes — an image so real, so lifelike, it could only be … a 3-D TV.

It may be back to home entertainment’s square one for those first adopters, thanks to consumer electronics giant Sony. Company CEO Howard Stringer told a Berlin tech trade show audience Wednesday that Sony will start selling Bravia televisions with three-dimensional viewing capabilities next year, according to the Financial Times. Sony is working on integrating 3-D technologies into existing branded products like Vaio notebook computers, PlayStation 3 video game consoles, and Blu-ray high-definition DVD players, Stringer also said.

Some technological issues still need to be worked out, according to the CEO, but thanks to advances in what’s known as “active” viewing — which ditches the traditional red- and blue-colored lenses for tiny shutters that rapidly flicker on and off in sync with a broadcasted image — Sony believes 3-D will go mainstream sooner than expected.

2010: The Year We Make 3-D Contact

Stringer’s announcement sets the stage for a 3-D publicity blitz starting just before the year-end holidays. That’s when Academy Award-winning director James Cameron’s “Avatar” hits movie screens worldwide, and audiences will finally get their own chance to see if Cameron’s new way of shooting a 3-D movie will match the early, mostly positive hype.

Then comes the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in January, and you might expect to see several models of 3-D TVs decorating the Las Vegas Convention Center exhibit halls. And yes, those first models will likely have a lot of three-dimensional dollar signs floating all around them. Nevertheless, “it’s more realistic that towards the end of next year, we will see some great hardware and some content that piques the imagination,” said Ben Bajarin, director of the consumer technology practice at Creative Strategies.

Bajarin has himself been eyeball-deep in home 3-D as he prepares for a forthcoming presentation at an Los Angeles summit focusing on both the commercial and the consumer sides of this technology. He’s already been playing with some of the early-model 3-D TVs, and he pronounces them ready for prime-time — with reservations.

“It’s pretty good,” Bajarin told TechNewsWorld. “The unfortunate thing is, what you’ve got right now, in terms of the most-demonstrated or widely implemented 3-D, is not very good. Last year’s national BCS (Bowl Championship Series) championship game and the episode of [NBC’s spy comedy] ‘Chuck’ used passive glasses, which were very cheap and have the red and blue lenses. The experience was pretty poor.

“But when you’re able to try that with active glass technology — the glasses have to be charged and take a battery, not a red-and-blue thing — it’s much more pleasant on the eyes,” he said. “If you watch college football games with active glasses and a TV capable of that, you’ve got yourself a pretty darn good 3-D depth-of-field experience.”

Matching 3-D Hardware With Content

Therein lies the big issue with enjoying 3-D television in the comfort of your own living room: Someone has to make the hardware devices (TV, glasses) that don’t get in the way of the consumer experience, and someone else has to broadcast programming and content in 3-D.

“The production has to be there,” Bajarin said. “Right now with the new digital spectrum, [broadcasters] have the infrastructure to do that. It’s not done well right now, but with the digital spectrum they’re using now for broadcast, they’ve got the bandwidth. But the content has to be produced, and the hardware has to be there from a quality standpoint to make the experience valuable for consumers.”

How can Sony make its other computer and gaming products backwards-compatible for 3-D? Bajarin isn’t sure about Sony’s plans, and the company didn’t reveal much about that in Berlin, but he has tinkered with a set of $149 plug-in active 3-D glasses from Nvidia that were originally designed for enhanced gaming. “All it takes is a 120Hz TV, and those are slowly becoming the standard in the market. It’s not only games in 3-D, but other video content as well. I watched the ‘Chuck’ episode on them streamed through Hulu, and it worked pretty good. Even things like the Web-browsing experience had good depth of field.”

In the early stages, Bajarin said, sports and other special events may be a better fit for the full 3-D experience than, say, episodes of “Gray’s Anatomy” or “How I Met Your Mother.” However, once the technology becomes more mainstream, location-rich and special effects-laden shows like “Lost” could benefit from the upgrade as well. There are other potential applications that, when you think about them, are so obvious they just sort of, well, pop out at you.

“Maybe a user interface or guide that allows me to have depth with things, faces and backgrounds,” Bajarin said. “Or images — photos could be very cool. It could be more than just TV — some kind of holistic experience that lends itself to a much more immersive experience.”

2 Comments

  • Real 3D – as opposed to the bogus stuff that requires glasses – has been available for a number of years from a company in Rochester NY called Dimension Technologies (www.dti3d.com). The military, NASA, medical researchers and the R&D industry have been using this very advanced technology for a long time. The images literally jump off the screen and hang in space, and no glasses are required. Glasses-based home 3D will never succeed – it’s just too clunky. But this no-glasses technology probably will.

  • I doubt it will catch on. There’s hype for 3-D now, but that’s only "ooo new toy" hype. As soon as people start recognizing the headache they get at the movie theater as "3-D headache", the hype’s going to go away.

    And despite claims to the contrary, "3-D headache" isn’t going away with new technology. My boyfriend and I both experienced it at the new Final Destination, and everyone I’ve mentioned it to said they had felt similar with modern 3-D as well, but didn’t realize at the time that it was "3-D headache."

    3-D works the eyes harder because you’re trying to focus on something in the foreground that’s actually in the background. It tricks your eyes and brain, causing them both to work harder. "3-D headache" is a flaw inherent in the technology–if the image isn’t actually all around you, it’ll never be comfortable to watch. It’s not a technology that has the potential to last–it’s too uncomfortable to use.

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