3D: The great unwanted TV technology?

This year at CES was the year of 3D -- evey manufacturer was desperate to show how great they think it is. The problem is no one asked for 3D TV, and no one cares

Ian Morris
3 min read

This year CES was awash with two things: Yahoo widgets, which were more common than pox on a Victorian-era prostitute, and 3D. As we wandered from booth to booth, looking at TVs displaying double images and people gawking at them through daft-looking glasses, we wondered: who asked for this?

3D is great in real life, because it stops us from falling down open manhole covers and walking into trees. The problem with it on TV is it's rarely anything but a total distraction. The main purpose of the technology is to give the impression of things flying towards you. Sure, at Disneyland that's cute, but every time you go to the cinema, or watch a Blu-ray?

Indeed, we'd argue that no serious filmmaker would actually want to use 3D as it is now. It's a gimmick: it suits kids' movies and films starring Brendan Fraser. We suspect Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan might not be in such a rush though, especially if it means deliberately staging events that appear to come out of the screen. After all, these look total pony in 2D, and painfully obvious.

For some reason though, every man(ufacturer) and his dog are falling over themselves to bestow the gift of 3D on us, whether we want it or, as is actually the case, not. Even Sky has said we're mere months away from having a broadcast TV service that can show entertainment in 3D.

So, why this sudden rush to create the third dimension? The answer is simply that HD televisions make it incredibly easy to do. A 3D image is generally created by separating two channels of information, and filtering them with a pair of glasses. In 3D of old, putting a red lens over one eye and a blue over the other would enable your brain to interpret depth in images that, to the naked eye, had coloured halos around objects.

With modern TVs, however, getting a frame rate of twice the standard is no longer a problem. That means that instead of 25fps, a TV would display 50fps. That way, one frame can be targeted at one eye, and the next at the other. In production, a special camera is used that records from two lenses instead of just one. All you need to watch 3D in this way is a set of special glasses controlled by a device that plugs into the TV. This sends a signal to the glasses, which block off one eye at a time.

Every system we've tested so far, including many of those at CES, has had the same problems. It's an uncomfortable experience wearing the glasses -- and obviously impractical if you wear glasses normally -- and the 3D looks anything from really horrible to utterly unbearable. The one exception was Panasonic, who managed to create something much more watchable.

So, who did ask for 3D? Well, movie studios clearly want it because it will make more money for them. At least, it will until the novelty wears off. Hardware manufacturers want it, because you'll need to pay for a new TV, a new Blu-ray player and a set of daft goggles to watch it with. Do normal people want it? We suspect not. But feel free to use the comments section to tell us what you think.

There will come a day when entertainment is truly 3D. At that point, watching TV will be more like a visit to the holodeck on the starship Enterprise than sitting in front of a box. No one will leave their house any more, and the human race will die out as everyone spends all their time having sex with holograms.