3D this, 3D that. For the love of all dimensions, will everyone just stop going on about it? Sadly, no. It appears that for whatever reason, people are obsessed with 3D. Either they hate it and moan about it all the time, or they think it's the bee's knees, and wish their whole lives were in 3D, not just TV shows and movies.
By far the biggest crowds at CES this year were drawn by the manufacturers' 3D displays. Some were absolutely worthy of the attention. The Sony OLED demo impressed us, for example, and we thought the Panasonic 3D system was about as good as any we've seen so far. The glasses are still problematic though -- wearing silly specs at the cinema is one thing, but at home? Normal glasses-wearers aren't too keen in any location, for fear of looking like Timmy Mallett.
The answer is to develop 3D that doesn't need glasses. Sadly, this seems to be presenting problems for TV manufacturers. Normal 3D is actually very simple. All you really need to be able to do is send double the frame information to the TV, so it just needs to run at 120 or 100Hz. 3D with glasses can work in different ways, but the ones we saw used liquid crystal shutter glasses, which shut off the image to one eye, then the next, so alternating flickering images on screen generate a fixed-perspective layering effect that tricks your brain into thinking it's seeing 3D.
At CES, both Samsung and a company called TCL were showing off TVs that didn't need glasses for the 3D to work. As you might expect, this is not a pleasant experience. Firstly, you have to stand in exactly the correct place to get a good effect, and secondly, it feels as though your eyes are trying to get into your brain and punch a hole in your occipital lobe.
Glasses-free 3D works by using a physical layer that separates what your left and right eye sees. It does this using a long, thin lens that runs over the surface of the TV. This process is identical to those 3D cards you move to generate an image that either moves, or changes. Producing video that works on these TVs would be a challenge -- if the picture isn't properly aligned with the lenses, the process won't work.
So will we ever see proper 3D without glasses? Well, it depends. The head-tracking 'Wii trick' is a pretty smart system, although the perspective will only be correct for the person wearing the tracker. The other option is a hologram, but we can't help but think that might be an impractical solution for home-based 3D. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's just fine that TV is 2D and the next major innovation in home entertainment might actually be something else.