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The June 17, 2010 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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The Evolution of TV--Now It's 3D

First black-and-white turned into color. Then standard-definition TV became High Definition. Next came Internet-connected TVs, with 3D sets following closely on their heels. How many households will be ready to open their wallets yet again, while their last TV purchase still has plenty of time left on its warranty?

Starting with CES this past January, 3D TV has been getting ever higher on the hype scale, as people take their turns using special glasses to see what all the fanfare is about.

Sandy with 3D glasses --> Click for larger pictureThe 3D demos gave Sandy a headache -- in two different ways. The first was literally--many of the demos made her want to reach for the Excedrin. (Sandy wasn't the only one--we asked a young techie in another booth what he thought of all the 3D hype, and he said the same thing.)

After Sandy's CES experience, she was a little concerned about how she would react to Avatar in 3D in a theater. She had no problems with headache or eye discomfort, suggesting that it would be prudent for prospective 3D set buyers to try them out on all the members of a family before putting up the money for what will initially be premium-priced sets.

Sony 3D World --> Click for larger pictureThe second headache was trying to wrap her mind around a striking contradiction at the show. On the show floor, manufacturers seemed committed to bringing 3D sets to market, and the content industry is driving to create new revenue streams. At the same time, the technical discussions focused on the many 3D issues yet to be resolved: the multiplicity of possible ways to create, send and render 3D; translating the 3D theater experience to the home environment; resolving the many types of incompatible glasses; avoiding eyestrain and vertigo; and more.

To help sort out what is happening across these various efforts, many companies have joined a consortium called 3D@Home. This consortium does not set standards, but is acting to help coordinate efforts by working with each of these organizations. It has published some helpful white papers, such as 3D Stereo Rendering: New Processing & Perception Challenges published in May 2010.

At the May Cable Show in LA, a session called "Depth Perceptions: Technical Approaches For 3D Video Integration" moderated by Comcast's Tony Werner did little to allay Sandy's concerns about how fast the industry is rushing into a sea of unsolved problems. One of the most enlightening, because of the accompanying visuals, was Mark Schubinís presentation from his paper What 3D Is And Why It Matters in the Technical Forum Proceedings.

Schubin pointed out that a stereoptic image pair is only one cue in human depth perception; other cues include one object blocking another, objects getting larger and sharper as you move closer to them, and muscle feedback from aiming and focusing the eyes. Inconsistency in these cues is a major source of eyestrain and vertigo. He discussed many issues in 3D video production, and observed that while it's easy to produce 3D, it's hard to produce good 3D. There's much more on Mark's blog SchubinCafe.

While technology is expected to advance to the point where special 3D glasses will not be required, 3D now depends on many different types of glasses using a variety of different technologies. "Active" glasses have a built-in electronic shutter synchronized by the TV to the left and right images. "Passive" glasses use a variety of techniques including color and polarization. Active glasses are said to provide better 3D but are rather expensive. Some glasses work on only one model or brand of TV, others on multiple models.

None of these unresolved technical issues have deterred the drumbeat of 3D announcements. LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony have started selling 3D TVs. ESPN and Discovery/Sony/IMAX have announced 3D channels. DirecTV and Sky are launching 3D, as is Cablevision (a cable provider in the New York City area); not to be outdone, Verizon says it will offer 3D service over FiOS TV later this year. Avail-TVN will join the party by offering a mix of linear and on-demand 3D content to cable, satellite, and telco operators later this year.

Motorola announced a set-top technology that they say solves one of the major problems with 3-D television: the need to switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D TV while keeping channels and menu screens clearly viewable. Motorola says new software for its DCX line of set-top boxes automatically detects the presence of 3D content and identifies the type of 3D format required for proper delivery and display on the 3D TV.

Although technology and standards are always interesting, the key ingredient in 3D TV will be what the user wants and is willing to pay for. We do wonder if 3D is rushing to market before it's really ready for prime time. We'll soon see how the 3D theater experience translates to the home.

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