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3-D HDTV is starting to get more in focus

As 3-D versions of movies continue to attract an audience, it’s inevitable that film studios and consumer electronics companies want to duplicate the success with 3-D HDTVs.
Image: Hyundai 3-D TV
A Hyundai ad shows the polarized 3-D glasses needed to work in conjunction with its 3-D high-definition set. New technologies are improving the quality of 3-D, which is expected to be offered as more of a premium feature on HDTV sets and programming in the United States.Hyundai IT Japan
/ Source: contributor

As 3-D versions of movies continue to attract an audience, it’s inevitable that film studios and consumer electronics companies want to duplicate the success at home. The time is at hand, with Sony and Panasonic recently announcing a new advanced generation of 3-D TV products that should be available within the next year in the United States.

"Technology exists today that can make great quality 3-D experiences in the home," said Rick Dean, chairman of the 3-D@Home Consortium, a group of companies cooperating on strategies and standards for 3-D TV.

But up until recently, the production and viewing of video in 3-D hadn’t changed much since the 1950s when 3-D movies such as "House of Wax" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon" lured viewers away from their TVs and back into the theaters, along with goofy-looking glasses.

The glasses — with red-and-green lenses, infamous for inducing headaches and nausea — are used to view a type of 3-D process called "anaglyph." The stereoscopic effect, which gives 3-D video the illusion of depth, comes from two superimposed images, one green and one red, depicted from slightly different perspectives. Each of the viewer’s eyes sees the opposite colored image.

3-D movies currently available on DVD and Blu-ray — including "Coraline," "My Bloody Valentine" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" — use anaglyph 3-D with cardboard red-and-green lens glasses, and are viewable on any TV.

"In order to see stereoscopic 3-D you need to send a right-eye view to the right eye and a left-eye view to the left eye," said Robert Boudreau, technology development manager for display commercial technology at Corning, a supplier of glass for LCD TVs. "The 3-D effect is created in the brain once the person’s eyes see these two views."

Much-improved process
Anaglyph 3-D is often underwhelming, especially for viewers used to high-definition, 2-D material. Then there are those unpleasant sensations.

While anaglyph is available in 1080p resolution, such as the "Hannah Montana" concert Blu-ray disc, "it does strain the eyes because each eye sees different colors and it is often difficult for people to view this type of 3-D, especially if they have a dominant eye," said Boudreau.

If you've seen a 3-D movie in the theater recently, the massive leap in color fidelity and dimensional effects compared to anaglyph films is due to a newer 3-D process that uses polarized glasses and a special theater screen. Projected images for the right and left eye are alternated rapidly and the polarized glasses pick up the correct image for each eye.

A related polarization technology called X-pol (for "cross-polarization") is now available in 3-D LCD high-definition TVs from Hyundai in Japan and LG Electronics in South Korea. The polarized glasses separate images for the right and left eye from the even and odd horizontal lines of video.

The DDD Group of California developed the TriDef conversion processor chip to convert 2-D video and games into 3-D for Hyundai’s 3-D LCD TVs.

There’s no contest, said Chris Yewdall, head of the DDD Group, when "comparing the latest Hyundai 3-D LCD TVs with full color Blu-ray Hollywood content, to the old-fashioned red/blue 3-D played back from a Blu-ray on a standard 2-D HDTV. ... It’s like comparing black-and-white TV to color TV."

'Active shutter' technology
Both Panasonic and Sony are backing yet another 3-D technology known as "active shutter," referring to the glasses used to view the 3-D video.

Left- and right-eye images are synchronized with the LCD shutters on the glasses by a signal sent from the TV. The LCD shutters quickly block out left- and right-eye views so that each eye sees only the intended image in sequence. The technology works with both LCD and plasma HDTVs.

The active shutter approach has one critical advantage over polarized 3-D: higher resolution.

Since polarized systems use filters to display only alternate lines of the video image to each eye, the vertical resolution is cut in half and image fidelity suffers. All the available screen resolution is used in active shutter products.

Sony, Panasonic sets
While Sony has announced availability of its active shutter-based 3-D BRAVIA LCD TVs for next year, Panasonic is further along with its 3-D TV products.

Dubbed "Full HD 3-D," Panasonic's line-up of 3-D plasma HDTVs includes LCD active shutter glasses, and Blu-ray players capable of playing 3-D movies.

Some Panasonic models will be available before the end of the year. A mobile demonstration trailer, complete with 103-inch, 3-D plasma HDTVs, is making the rounds, and a promotional partnership is in place for James Cameron's much-anticipated 3-D animated movie, "Avatar," in theaters this December.

Prices are not known yet for Panasonic or Sony 3-D TVs.

Peter Fannon, Panasonic's vice president of corporate and government affairs, said "the good news is that we and the major studios are intent on starting with the highest quality possible with today’s technology, that is, full HD 3-D, so that consumers get the best possible experience with images — and multi-channel sound, of course — that make it just like being there rather than just watching TV — a whole new experience, really."

The company’s approach "creates a full HD, 1080p picture for each eye, left and right, so that we see just what one would see in nature," Fannon said.

Didn't we just upgrade?
But the adoption of any new format comes with challenges, both technological and commercial. An often costly upgrade from a standard TV to a high-definition set is still fresh for many consumers, and new 3-D-compatible TVs and Blu-ray disc players will be necessary to enjoy pre-recorded 3-D video.

The cost of these new products may be unknown, but there is likely to be a premium for them over regular HDTVs and Blu-ray players.

And while the Blu-ray Disc Association is working toward a standard for 3-D Blu-ray, many home entertainment fans familiar with the battles between VHS and Betamax and, more recently, Blu-ray and HD-DVD, may be reluctant to take a chance on a fledgling 3-D TV format.

Then there is the matter of cable, satellite and Internet broadcast TV.

"While 3-D movies for home consumption will attract some interest, and will help to drive adoption of 3-D Blu-ray disc players, movies alone will not be enough to drive wider adoption," said David Mercer, principal analyst for digital consumer practice at StategyAnalytics.

"For 3-D to become a wider success, the television industry, including producers and broadcasters, will need to commit to 3-D production in the longer term," he said.

"The necessary equipment — cameras, editing systems, transmission — to support 3-D television are only just beginning to emerge and it will be some years before television companies can deliver more than occasional programs in 3-D."

3-D in Japan
Japan's Nippon BS Broadcasting Corporation currently broadcasts 3-D TV, and SKY TV in the United Kingdom has announced plans for 3-D television channels in 2010, but no plans have been announced yet in the United States.

Because of the high-bandwidth requirements of full HD 3-D video, essentially two separate high-definition video streams, one for each eye, simultaneously, broadcasting 3-D TV programming faces technical hurdles.

Angela Wilson Gyetvan, of 3ality Digital, the 3-D video technology and production firm behind "U2 3-D," said her company views 3-D television "largely as a premium, pay-TV experience for the first few years."

Events with "limited public access, but huge fan bases, will be key drivers — sports, music, live cultural and political events," she says. "Once you have enough of these things broadcast in 3-D, you will have folks adopting the technology."

With widespread 3-D broadcasts further down the road in the U.S., the early success or failure of 3-D TV may depend on cost and a single format for 3-D movies.

Paul Gagnon, director of North American TV research at DisplaySearch, says the "key to 3-D will be standards. .... Hopefully, an agreed-upon standard can be decided soon to avoid a format war. Even so, 3-D is likely to be introduced in high-end products first, and trickle down the lineup over time to capture the maximum premium up front."