HDTVS--Today and Tomorrow

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3DTV: The Next Big Thing?

Hollywood has noticed the runaway success of 3D movies at the box office; the 3D versions often account for as much as two-thirds of the ticket sales, even though the 2D versions appear on far more screens. About 15 major feature films will be released in 3D in 2009, with twice that number scheduled for 2010.

That means for the first time, we'll have Hollywood entertainment content ready to be piped into home theaters. A Consumer Electronics Association survey noted that 50 percent of consumers are willing to pay extra to get 3D functionality on their TVs. So it should come as no surprise that HDTV manufacturers are scrambling to support 3DTV.

As it turns out, plasma and 120Hz LCD technology are both adaptable to 3DTV using active glasses, which are different from the passive glasses used in most 3D movie theaters. Active glasses use LCD material to block the light to one eye, then the other, at very fast rates. By synchronizing them to the content on the HDTV, full-resolution 1080p images can be presented sequentially to the left and right eyes, and still have a total frame rate of 60Hz. (In general, speeds of 60Hz or better are required to prevent annoying flicker in the images.) Panasonic has announced a version of this scheme for plasma TVs.

Other technologies can be used to show 3D images with either passive glasses or no glasses at all, but these are currently too expensive to manufacture or have significant viewing limitations, and thus are less likely to be successful, at least for the next few years.

Panasonic and Sony have already made high-profile announcements about their respective plans for 3DTV in the home, with both promising HDTVs and Blu-ray players. Sony already is involved, providing 3D cameras and other equipment for movie production. Panasonic, too, has 3D cameras in production--including on James Cameron's highly anticipated Avatar; plus, the company aims to educate consumers and dealers about 3DTV by doing a nationwide demonstration road show

One roadblock for 3D content has been the lack of an industry standard, but that's fast changing. Hollywood already adds depth information to many of its films, and translates this into different formats used by different cinema projection systems such as the RealD system based on polarized light, or the Dolby system that uses sophisticated RGB color filters to create stereoscopic images. Creating a similar "home 3D master" is not that difficult--SMPTE (an organization of industry engineers) is well on the way to defining such a specification, which can then be used to provide data for a variety of display formats. And the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) is working on a standard for storing 3D on prepackaged media. HDTVs can be made to work with a variety of 3D data-stream formats, which means they should be able to handle whatever formats may evolve in the 3DTV market.

Don't expect this to happen overnight. Samsung and Panasonic have been selling 3D-capable rear projection HDTVs for years with little interest by consumers. The first 3D-capable flat panel HDTVs will start appearing in 2010, but until there's a critical mass of 3D content--and broad distribution over cable, satellite, and Internet as well as Blu-ray--adoption is likely to be slow. Even with new technology that can "synthesize" depth information from existing 2D movies and television programming, it will probably be 2012 or 2013 before 3DTV will start to have an impact on sales in this country.

So if you're planning on buying a new HDTV this year, you don't need to worry about waiting for a 3DTV choice. But, by this time next year, it could become the fifth item--after high refresh rate, LED backlighting, network connectivity, and energy economy--on your list of the latest must-have features.

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