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Will 3-D Make the Jump from Theater to Living Room?

Glasses-free 3-D television is still a long way from the market.

Television manufacturers and content producers started out the year pushing 3-D television hard, hoping to ride the wave of success enjoyed by the 3-D movie Avatar. Though glasses-free 3-D is still some ways away, manufacturers hope to entice consumers with a flurry of products that make the best of the difficulties with bringing 3-D content to the small screen.

Spotlight on 3-D: Specialized cameras will be required to provide content for 3-D televisions.

Producing a 3-D television that doesn’t require glasses is “impractical for the foreseeable future,” says Peter Fannon, vice president of corporate and government affairs for Panasonic.

Demos featuring glasses-free 3-D television technology have yet to pan out into real products. Two years ago, Mitsubishi attracted attention by showing off glasses-free 3-D research technology, but the company has no products based on the work.

Fannon says that a key trouble with glasses-free 3-D is that it would significantly raise production costs. Most glasses-free TV displays use a lenticular lens, which gives off light at different angles–so that a different image reaches each eye. Such a display requires images of the same object to be captured from many different angles, forcing content producers to film and process the same scene from a dozen or more angles at a once. “That’s a production cost no one can bear,” he says. Lenticular lenses can also distort a picture, and viewers often have to watch from a specific angle.

Instead, 3-D technologies in use today employ glasses to control the images. The most common technology, used in movie theaters, is made by RealD, a company based in Beverly Hills, CA. This technology uses a special screen to reflect polarized light to the audience when images are projected onto it. The glasses then filter the light so that images are directed correctly to each eye.

RealD has made deals with many of the major manufacturers, including Sony, JVC, Samsung, Toshiba, Panasonic, and DirecTV, to use its format to deliver 3-D content to televisions. However, the majority of 3-D televisions use “active eyewear” to process 3-D content for each eye, unlike the passive glasses used in movie theaters.

Active glasses for 3-D are battery-operated, and they have lenses that rapidly shutter open and closed. The television display–often an LCD or plasma screen–works double-time, cramming in twice as many pictures so that a each eye sees a continuous, high-quality image.

A RealD spokesman explained that the special screen technology used in movie theaters, where the display does most of the work, would be too expensive if translated to 3-D TVs for consumers. Active glasses, on the other hand, are too expensive for movie theaters to hand out in volume, but work well for home users.

Panasonic’s Fannon adds that polarized glasses work best in a dark environment, where a large screen fills the audience’s entire field of vision. Active shutters are better suited to the home environment, he says.

Picture perfect: ESPN technicians calibrate a 3-D camera before a sporting event.

The challenges brought by 3-D aren’t just in the display technology, either. Sports network ESPN recently announced that it would offer a special 3-D channel, which will start out in June showing World Cup events. As part of offering this content, the network has to change some of its filming practices, explains Anthony Bailey, vice president of emerging technology at ESPN.

“The biggest change is the camera placement,” Bailey says. Shooting in 3-D works best if the cameras are positioned closer and lower than normal, Bailey says. He notes that in tests the network has done, changing from one camera to another can introduce changes in perspective that can alter the perceived size of players on the field. Heavy movement also tends to blur, and placing graphics on-screen can be challenging.

Bailey says ESPN will start out showing soccer partly because the network’s tests have helped it determine some of the best ways to present the sport in 3-D. ESPN is still looking into the best ways to shoot golf tournaments and other sports.

Besides simply making sure that content is available, part of the industry’s strategy is to offer lots of 3-D-enabled products. In addition to televisions, companies are releasing 3-D-enabled Blu-ray players and camcorders. Consumers who want 3-D content from satellite TV service DirecTV will need to download new software for their set-top boxes, but they won’t need any new hardware.

Panasonic’s Fannon believes that this approach will make 3-D television mainstream in a much shorter time than it took to gain widespread adoption of HDTV. With that earlier technology, he says, there was a “chicken and egg” problem–content and hardware weren’t released in step with each other. The hope now, he says, is that consumers will upgrade to 3-D when they buy new televisions, since there is content available and they won’t need additional hardware. In contrast, consumers who wanted HD content from DirecTV, for example, had to buy a set-top box and new dish in addition to a new television.

Fannon says Panasonic plans to offer its plasma screen 3-D televisions for a few hundred dollars more than the baseline price for a standard full-featured television. Mitsubishi currently sells its 3-D televisions for between $1,500 and $4,200.

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