3D is coming to a living room near you

Three-dimensional TV could be the next big thing in home entertainment, or it could be the next big disappointment. Consumers will ultimately decide.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read
A CES attendee checks out LG Electronics' 3D LCD TV. Marguerite Reardon/CNET News

Three-dimensional TV is coming to a living room near you. But will the technology spur a consumer spending spree like digital and high-definition TV did before it? Or will 3D end up being the next big flop?

One thing is clear, TV manufacturers need something new to get people buying TVs. Over the last couple of years, TV manufacturers have experienced a sales boom as consumers upgrade to digital TVs in anticipation of the government's mandated switch to digital TV broadcasts in February 2009. Eager shoppers have also been upgrading to high-definition TVs as movie studios, cable and satellite operators, and TV broadcasters have begun offering more programming in HD.

But as the economy worsens, the forecast for the TV market is looking grim. The LCD TV market is only expected to grow about 17 percent in terms of units shipped in 2009, according to research firm DisplaySearch. This is down from growth of about 29 percent in 2008. Plasma TV growth is also expected to suffer with the market only expected to grow by about 5 percent in 2009 compared with a 24 percent rise in 2008, DisplaySearch said.

As a result, TV makers are looking for the next hot thing to attract new consumers. And some are hoping 3D TVs could be it.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, four of the top selling TV manufacturers--Samsung Electronics, Sony, LG Electronics and Panasonic--showed off their latest versions of 3D TVs. Panasonic set up a mini-home theater where its 103-inch, plasma 3D screen showed clips from New Line Cinema's Journey to the Center of the Earth and Walt Disney Pictures' animated film Bolt. They also showed high-definition 3D footage from NBC's broadcast of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

While some manufacturers, such as Mitsubishi, Phillips, Samsung, and Sharp, have already begun selling 3D-ready TVs, the top four manufacturers plan to have new, advanced 3D TVs on sale toward the end of 2009 and into 2010.

But the big question is whether consumers, particularly American consumers, will be willing to upgrade to a new TV just because it has 3D. Pricing for today's 3D ready TVs is comparable to other flat-screen HDTVs. Samsung and Mitsubishi currently sell their 3D-ready TVs for between $1,000 and $2,800, depending on functionality. These prices are in line with average prices for HDTVs that don't offer 3D readiness.

Keisuke Suetsugi, a manager for the audio visual center at Panasonic, believes that even the newer, more advanced 3D TVs will not cost much more than TVs without 3D. So for consumers already in the market for a TV, adding 3D readiness might not add much cost. But will 3D be enough to compel cutting-edge consumers to replace their 2- or 3-year-old TVs? That's what TV manufactures are hoping.

Three-dimensional movies have been around since the 1950s. And for most of its lifespan the technology has been seen more as a gimmick than something that truly enhances the movie-going experience. But newer technology and advanced special effects are helping 3D movies break into the mainstream.

TV makers believe that much of the demand for 3D will come from Hollywood, which is pushing 3D in a big way. Last year, DreamWorks announced that all its films will be produced for 3D production beginning in 2009. The company has partnered with chipmaker Intel to build processors that will help make 3D in the home a reality.

NBA basketball fans watch a live 3D broadcast of Game 2 of the 2007 NBA finals. NBA

Sports leagues have also been experimenting with 3D technology. Both the National Basketball Association and the National Football League have broadcast events and games in 3D to movie theaters.

From a technical standpoint, the technology is available and mature enough today to make 3D TVs available at a reasonable cost to consumers. But there are still a few drawbacks that could prevent 3D TV from becoming the next big thing in home entertainment.

For one, to get the really cool, immersive 3D experience without getting a massive head-ache, consumers will have to wear special glasses when they're watching TV in 3D. The glasses are needed because 3D imaging requires sending a different image to each eye. And the glasses help merge the images in the mind and trick the brain into thinking that it's seeing a single 3D image.

I checked out Panasonic's home theater in 3D. I must admit, the experience was phenomenal. I felt like I was on the floor at the Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing right alongside the hundreds of dancers and drummers. But without the glasses, the image looked fuzzy.

Panasonic's Suetsugi admits that in a perfect world, consumers should be able to have the immersive 3D experience without wearing glasses. But he said that it will be at least 10 years before the technology is advanced enough to provide a similarly robust 3D experience without glasses.

"Glassless 3D would be ideal," he said. "But it's just not possible to do that now and get the same quality experience. You would need at least 50 times more pixels to get a display to provide the same 3D experience that we provide with our TV. We are still 10 years away from that kind of technology."

Taesoo Park, a chief research engineer at LG, which makes 3D display monitors for advertising and digital signage, agrees. LG plans to start selling its 3D TVs, which require glasses, late in 2009 or in the beginning of 2010. Its glassless digital signs were also on display at CES.

"Glassless 3D is available today for digital signage and advertising," Park explained. "But the technology is not ready for TVs, because it would hurt people's eyes or give them a headache to look at today's 3D displays for any length of time. It will be at least a decade before we can get the technology to make glassless TV a reality."

That said, some manufacturers claim they have developed technology that doesn't require glasses. Phillips uses a technology it calls WOWvx. 3M and Toshiba also showed off glassless 3D screens at CES. 3M has created a thin film technology that can be used to beam light selectively to the viewer's right and left eyes.

But glasses aren't the only thing that could hold back 3D adoption. Currently, there's no standard way to get 3D footage from the movie studios or from a live broadcasts to the home. Companies, such as Panasonic, are already working on developing a standard. But industry watchers fear that competing standards could emerge and spur another "format" war like the one that pitted HD DVD and Blu-ray against each other.

Panasonic's Suetsugi said he is hopeful that a common standard for 3D Blu-ray hardware, software, and TVs will emerge sometime this year, paving the way for 3D TV sales to pick up in 2010.

In addition to the standards issue, another hurdle for 3D TV has to do with the high production cost of shooting movies and events in 3D, as well as, the high cost of transporting the video across networks. Three-dimensional video requires multiple cameras for shooting. And it also requires multiple high-definition streams for transporting the video over carrier networks.

Regular standard definition television broadcasts consume more bandwidth capacity than other types of traffic like audio or text. High-definition video eats up even more. And it would likely take at least two full high-definition channels to broadcast live just one game in 3D.

This means that service providers, such as cable or satellite operators, would have to upgrade their infrastructure to handle the high bandwidth demands. Verizon, which is deploying fiber directly to consumers' homes for its Fios service, is already in good shape. But others such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, are already finding it difficult to carve out enough bandwidth for regular HD video as well as Internet video on their networks.

"Transporting live, high-definition 3D streams is very expensive," said Steve Hellmuth, executive vice president of technology and operations for the NBA. "So there has to be sufficient demand and a pool of content before satellite and cable operators will devote resources to delivering it. I really think that Hollywood will initially drive adoption of 3D in the home."