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Home 3-D: Here, or Hype?

New 3-D devices are coming to stores, but widespread adoption may not be so fast.

At an event in Boston yesterday, Panasonic demoed its latest 3-D product: a 50-inch, high-definition 3-D plasma-screen TV, which goes on sale next month for about $2,499. Donning a $150 pair of glasses in the darkened room, I watched scenes of waterfalls and hiking in 3-D that was clearer and crisper than anything I’ve seen in theaters. Without providing specific figures, Panasonic says it sold out of other 3-D TVs in the U.S. during the first week of sales.

Home 3-D: To watch most 3-D televisions, you’ll need battery-powered “shutter” glasses, such as these from Panasonic.

Announcements from Panasonic and other major manufacturers, including Mitsubishi, Sony, Philips, and Toshiba, mean that consumers will soon be able to buy many different 3-D products: TVs, Blu-ray players, video games, even cameras and camcorders. A new Blu-ray standard for 3-D should also make it easier for companies to produce 3-D content that will play on all 3-D TVs.

“About 8 percent of the consumer televisions sold in the United States this year will be 3-D; next year that number will more than double,” says Robert Perry, senior vice president, Panasonic Consumer Electronics Company. Given that it took about eight years for high-definition television to catch on, Perry predicts that it “will take about four to five years for one half of all televisions sold in the United States to have 3-D capability. Then it will ramp up very quickly after that.”

Manufacturers hope that the popularity of 3-D movies can help push the technology into the home. “There is a heightened awareness of 3-D,” says Jonas Tanenbaum, vice president of marketing for LCD and LED TVs at Samsung, which this year is offering 15 3-D TV models on LED, LCD and plasma, ranging from $1,699 to $5,000.

However, some experts are more skeptical about the prospects for widespread adoption.

Research firm DisplaySearch predicts that there will be 1.2 million 3-D-capable TVs shipped this year and over four million next year, compared to the 200,000 shipped in 2009. Jennifer Colegrove, DisplaySearch’s director of display technologies, says that all of these 3-D TVs–which can be switched to a regular 2-D mode–will mainly be used for 2-D viewing for now. “Most people who buy a 3-D-ready TV will not really watch it,” she says. One drawback, Colegrove, says, is that some 3-D TVs don’t work well under fluorescent or halogen lighting (the light interferes with the infrared emitter that communicates between the TV and 3-D glasses).

The incompatibility of different 3-D TVs may also deter some consumers from upgrading their home entertainment systems. In the theater, users wear “passive” polarized glasses to transform the blurry image onscreen into a 3-D image. But in-home theaters generally require that users wear battery-powered “active” shutter-type glasses, which work by quickly opening and closing a screen in front of each eye (usually 60 or 120 times per second) in time with onscreen frames. The glasses stay in sync with the TV images usually via an infrared emitter and receiver. The problem is that shutter times and transmitting standards vary between TV sets (although a company called XpanD, which makes 3-D glasses for movie theaters, says it has developed universal 3-D glasses). Another issue is that many potential early adopters probably recently bought large flat-screen TVs and may be less inclined to invest in another one soon.

Even if customers do buy 3-D TVs, there isn’t a lot of 3-D content available. But TV stations such as DirecTV and ESPN have promised to start broadcasting in 3-D, and the first Blu-Ray 3-D movies are starting to roll out. TVs from Mitsubishi, Samsung, and Toshiba can convert 2-D content to 3-D by using algorithms that guess where depth should appear, but the results tend not to be as vivid as content filmed in 3-D. “My opinion is that these kinds of [converting] technologies will be very important, but right now they are not in high quality yet,” says Colegrove.

Early on, one of the biggest sources of 3-D content could be computer games. “There’s no doubt that 3-D gaming should be a big driver for adoption of these products,” says Samsung’s Tanenbaum. At Panasonic’s demo, Nvidia showed off its 3-D gaming technology. The company has converted over 400 PC games to 3-D. While the 3-D didn’t pop quite as much as the other content, it was enough to make a racing game slightly more immersive.

Manufacturers will be hoping that other products, including 3-D camcorders and cameras, will encourage people to create their own 3-D content. DisplaySearch predicts that by the end of 2010, there will be 10 million 3-D cameras and camcorders shipped, compared to a forecast of under 100,000 for this year. “We think the price will drop and expect the technology will get better,” says Colegrove.

Amar Aggoun, a researcher in 3-D imaging technologies at Brunel University in London, is developing a 3-D system that can display 3-D images without requiring glasses. “For the home, where everyone would have to [wear] glasses, it might not be as practical as going to a movie,” he says, adding that 3-D viewing with glasses “tends to give you a headache.”

There have been a few demos of prototype glasses-free 3-D technology, but Aggoun believes it’ll be about three years before this hits the market.

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