At CES, new 3D TV tech emerges

Last year's CES saw 3D TV's debut with active-shutter technology. This year brought the first passive polarized lenses, creating a messaging split in a still-nascent industry.

LG is emphasizing passive polarized 3D technology with its new 3D TV lineup, a change from its pitch at CES a year ago.
LG is emphasizing passive polarized 3D technology with its new 3D TV lineup, a change from its pitch at CES a year ago. LG

LAS VEGAS--3D isn't just plain old 3D anymore.

Later this year when the 3D televisions sets that debuted at CES 2011 start hitting store shelves, shoppers will find more than one type of 3D technology. CES a year ago was 3D-at-home's big coming-out party, led by Sony and Panasonic, which came with HDTVs that with the aid of special glasses could show 3D movies. Both brands used the same technology in the accompanying glasses: active-shutter. The same went for models from manufacturers like Samsung and Vizio that followed.

Flash forward to 2011: While many of the heavy hitters in TV are staying with active 3D technology, other big names like LG and Vizio are either adding or completely switching to passive polarized 3D tech for their sets.

3D at home is still a new idea, and the consumer electronics and film industries haven't yet proved to mainstream consumers that this is a must-have thing around the house. Just 3.2 million out of 24.7 million TV sets sold in the U.S. in 2010 were 3D-capable, according to market research firm DisplaySearch. So why would the TV industry split over the kind of technology powering 3D sets so early in the game?

The difference between the two is subtle but important. With active-shutter technology, two HD images are projected from the screen and the glasses use battery operated shuttering to create the 3D stereoscopic effect. Passive polarized lenses are more familiar since they're the kind of 3D glasses you get at a movie theater. They're polarized so that each eye only sees every other line of resolution so they see the image in 3D.

Some argue active-shutter is a better experience than passive polarized lenses because you get the "full HD" resolution of the video you're watching. But the drawback of active-shutter is the price of the glasses, which are usually over $100 when bought separately. They're not disposable like passive--they're battery powered and need to be recharged, which makes buying a pair for the whole family a rather significant investment on top of that expensive new TV you just bought.

LG , Toshiba, and Vizio all introduced passive polarized 3D TV models at CES last week, with some of the companies, like LG and Vizio, emphasizing the benefits of the new passive 3D sets over previous active-shutter models.

So why the switch? The big guys, Sony and Panasonic, aren't changing their pitch--they're sticking it out with active. However, LG, which still offers active-shutter 3D TVs, is a large producer of display panels for many in the TV manufacturing industry and has recently been able to produce a passive display at a more reasonable cost, noted David Wertheimer, CEO and executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC. The film applied to create passive displays had previously been more cost-intensive to produce, which is one of the reasons many of the first 3D models used active-shutter technology.

Sony Chairman and CEO Howard Stringer makes his pitch for active-shutter 3D TVs at CES 2011.
Sony CEO Howard Stringer makes his pitch for active-shutter 3D TVs at CES 2011. James Martin/CNET

Also, Wertheimer said, "many people find passive polarized to be more comfortable. The weight of the glasses is better, it works better over (eye)glasses. It seems to provide a really comfortable long viewing experience."

To add to the confusion, there have been some varying reports about the benefits of passive versus active 3D. LG has warned that active-shutter can cause nausea, and discomfort to viewers' eyes. Health concerns related to 3D viewing aren't just reserved for active-shutter though--Nintendo has also warned that its glasses-free 3D portable video game system, the 3DS, is not meant for children under age six due to eye-development concerns.

Panasonic, for one, believes this split between the 3D technologies won't last and that the active versus passive issue will sort itself out much the way the Blu-ray and HD DVD video formats did.

"3D is something that just came out, whether it's going to be active or a different type, there are various aspects to it," Fumio Otsubo, president of Panasonic said, speaking through a translator. "There has never been (a time) in the history of (the audio/visual industry) that two or three methods coexisted. At some point a standard will emerge."

Executives from both Panasonic and Sony are betting that active will win out. Both are targeting buyers who want a high-end "full HD" type of product.

Panasonic says that for its customers "having a perfect experience with 3D is such an important issue," suggesting that passive 3D's less-than full 1080p video will matter to potential buyers of 3D TV sets.

That, of course, is up to the potential customer. Toshiba is offering both passive and active models of 3D television and says it's "all about choice" for the consumer. The passive glasses are considerably cheaper and potentially a "more family friendly" price option, a company representative said.

Which is why USC's Wertheimer doesn't believe the choice of active versus passive is going to be all that divisive an issue for buyers.

"Honestly, I don't think consumers will really care,..." he said. "They're going to go into a Best Buy and they're going to hear, 'You can buy this TV, it has active-shutter (lenses) with batteries, but it costs x dollars, and this other (3D) TV has these other inexpensive disposable glasses, but it's more money.'

"I don't think it's going to be any more confusing than plasma, LCD, backlit LED. You buy the one that looks the best to you."

 

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