Everything You Need to Know About 3D TVs

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From sci-fi to sports, documentaries to kids' flicks, 3D is the next big thing for the world of home theater. HDTV may make your image look brilliant, but only 3D promises explosions that make you flinch and landscapes that seem to be rolling out of your TV.

If you bought an HDTV set early on, you probably remember the sting of having nothing to watch at first--and if you picked HD-DVD over Blu-ray, you may have had the sinking realization that your $300 player was becoming obsolete. Don't make those mistakes with 3D TV; just read through this 3D TV FAQ, and you'll have all the details you need before you start your holiday shopping early (or decide to wait).

How does 3D TV work?

All 3D displays work by showing each eye a slightly different image, which creates the illusion that you're seeing something from more than one angle. For example, the classic red-and-blue "anaglyph" 3D glasses achieved this effect by using the colored lenses to filter red light to one eye and blue light to the other.

Anaglyph 3D glasses.
The drawback of the anaglyph method, of course, is that it practically obliterates the color from the image. Instead of using a light filter, current 3D TVs work by combining a pair of powered glasses (called "active shutter glasses") with a television that has an infrared emitter. When the TV plays a 3D movie, it alternates between displaying an image for the left eye and displaying one for the right; its infrared emitter instructs your glasses when to dim the left lens and when to dim the right lens to create the illusion of 3D.

This method is significantly different from the one used in movie theaters, by the way. Most 3D movies use glasses that are polarized (kind of like sunglasses) differently in the left and right lens; a special filter fitted to the movie projector allows it to switch rapidly between images for your left eye and images for your right. In principle, it's similar to the red-and-blue 3D system, except that it keeps the color intact (though the polarization does dim the image a bit).

In any case, if you forgot to return your movie glasses after watching Avatar, you won't be able to use them with a 3D TV, since it uses a completely different display technology. For more information about how 3D TV works, check out our "Geek 101: Getting Behind the Scenes With 3D HDTV" post.

What equipment do I need to be able to watch 3D content at home?

3D TV will cause blue aliens, jets, and football players to chase a butterfly out of your TV.
You'll need a 3D-capable HDTV, a pair of 3D glasses, and (if you want to watch 3D Blu-ray movies) a special Blu-ray player; unfortunately, your existing Blu-ray won't quite cut it. For PlayStation 3 owners, Sony released a firmware upgrade in June to support 3D games, and the company is promising to provide a similar upgrade for 3D Blu-ray support in September.

As of now, it doesn't look as though you'll need to buy new HDMI cables or anything like that, so you don't have to donate your paycheck to Best Buy quite yet.

How can I tell whether my TV can display 3D images?

So far, only a handful of TVs from the big manufacturers can display 3D images: Samsung has a few higher-end LED-backlit LCDs (7000/8000/9000 series), plasmas (7000, 8000), and LCD TVs (750) that can handle 3D; other qualifying sets include Sony's Bravia XBR-LX900 series, LG's LX6500 and LX9500 televisions, and Panasonic's Viera VT25 line.

In other words, it's highly unlikely that you purchased a 3D-capable HDTV and didn't realize it. If you're still wondering whether your TV can show 3D images, just look it up on the manufacturer's Website--vendors aren't shy about promoting this capability on the relevant product page when they can.

LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony are the only big-name TV manufacturers with entries in the 3D arena already, though models from Philips, Sharp, and Toshiba should reach the market in the next year or so.

My HDTV says that it's "3D-Ready." What does that mean?

A few manufacturers have sold TVs labeled as "3D-Ready." Many of the models in Mitsubishi's DLP HDTV line carry this designation, for example, as do a handful of Sony Bravia TVs. While the definition of "3D-Ready" varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, the term typically means that the set can display 3D content but lacks the IR emitter needed to sync the TV's image to the glasses--so you'll need to buy that separately. Also, because the 3D techniques found in DLP TVs ("Wobulating") sacrifice detail for a 3D image, if your source media is in 1080p ("Full HD"), it'll show in 3D at half that resolution.

How much does a 3D TV cost?

The total cost of fully 3D-ifying your home-theater setup depends on such factors as the set's display size and other features. Generally speaking, however, you're looking at investing at least $2000 in the set itself, plus anywhere from $220 to $400 for a 3D Blu-ray player and $150 for each additional pair of active shutter glasses (some sets will come bundled with one or two pairs).

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