I recently became a 29-year veteran of the audio/video industry. Hard to believe that one can actually make a living selling what are basically high-priced toys. Over the past few months I've been getting some questions from friends and acquaintances regarding the validity of 3D televisions for the home. With the fall and holiday selling season rapidly coming on, a number of national, regional and local retailers are banking upon selling 3D video to main stream home video buyers. There's been a lot of pressure from manufacturers and industry groups on these retailers to adopt and embrace 3D for home, but is it really worth it? Let me see if I can help clear up some issues.
A few years ago, my company used to distribute a 3D processor from a Canadian company, Sensio, that featured the first somewhat affordable 3D capable processor in the industry. Priced at $3000, the Sensio stereoscopic processor was definitely ahead of its time. But it performed at or better at a price about 1/8th of what previous 3D processors where available at that time. Being that 3D was a relatively new process at that time, I had to learn a lot about how 3D works, the different formats and where the industry was going before I could go out and sell Sensio.
About seven years ago, I was interviewed for an article by the Sioux City Journal regarding the Sensio 3D processor. At that time, HD television was just beginning to become a reality, but the Sensio processor was far from being an HD source. I incorrectly stated at the time, "(3D will) never be a high definition format just because of the anomalies at go into (the process). But the wow factor is at the point where people don't care if it's high definition or not. It's something that's completely magical." Given the limitations of the processor at the time, I truly believed that 3D would not be available in HD.
Well, I have been proven completely wrong in my statement. Technology marched on and a number of companies were able to provide 3D in an HD format. 3D programming is now on DirecTV with channels such as ESPN-3D, DirecTV Cinema 3D and N3D. Blu-Ray movies in 3D are beginning to become available, as well. And earlier this year, Sony announced that their Playstation 3 game box will have the capabilities of being able to play both movies and games in 3D via a firmware upgrade that is scheduled to be released at any time.
As I said, manufacturers have jumped on the 3D bandwagon with both feet and have pushed their product onto the floors of retailers across the nation. Samsung claimed at the end of August that they've sold 1 million 3D flat panel units in the first six months the televisions were on the market. They have a goal of selling 2 million units by the end of this year. The question is, how many of those are making it to the homes of consumers?
Nearly any audio/video store worth its salt has a 3D display on their floor. Most of these are 55-inch flat panels, although Mitsubishi has models up to an 82-inch rear-projection that feature 3D capability. While a number of people have seen 3D in action on the floors of many A/V stores, according to the salespeople I've talked to - especially at American TV and Ultimate Electronics - they aren't exactly flying out the doors.
Oh, Now, before I go on, I cannot claim that I am an expert at 3D by any means. But I had to learn much about 3D, the history, how it works, how movies are produced and what type of content is available when I was working with Sensio that I'm dangerous enough to be able to form strong opinions on the subject. So let's take a look at all the angles of 3D to help you make your decision as to whether or not this is what you really want to get for your home.
Nearly every major television manufacturer is jumping on the 3D bandwagon. Panasonic, Samsung, LG Philips, Sharp, Mitsubishi and Sony all have a number of models to choose from that incorporate 3D technology. Projection companies Runco and Digital Projection debuted new 3D projector units at the recent CEDIA Expo held in Atlanta. JVC and Sony both showed new 3D projectors, as well, that will come in with price tags from between $5,000 to $11,000 each. The Digital Projection unit was shown on a 180" diagonal 2:35 to 1 screen. I didn't get a chance to see it, but I heard it was just stunning.
While Digital Projection's system is an active stereoscopic system, Runco's system (left) is a passive polarized dual projection system, similar to what you'd find at an IMAX theater. But the glasses Runco uses are different from the polarized glasses used at an IMAX 3D theater. The lenses on Runco's glasses are a circular lenticular style rather than the linear style for IMAX. Supposedly, you can easily move your head around and still see the 3D images, whereas at an IMAX theater you have to keep your head nearly still at all times to see the 3D image.
Italian projector manufacturer Sim2 also showed a dual projection system at CEDIA. However, they'll use the same polarized glasses as what IMAX uses.
Both dual projection systems were not cheap - $50,000 bucks for the Runco and $80,000 for the Sim2. But they certainly weren't as expensive as this thing - the Panasonic 152-inch plasma with 3D capabilities. This little number, which was first shown at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, comes in with a hefty $150,000 price tag. It was on display at CEDIA in Atlanta and I had to stop and take a picture of it (see below).
With 3D bigger is definitely better with picture size which makes me wonder about Toshiba's new models that they recently announced will be introduced in December. Toshiba will be coming out with 3D televisions where the user won't have to wear glasses, but the televisions will only be available in 12" and 20" screens. How 3D is accomplished with the Toshiba models is with a perpendicular lenticular sheet that will be placed in front of the screen. However, Toshiba is promoting these models as "personal" 3D televisions as the viewer has to be very close to the screen to see the 3D effects. And it won't be cheap - reports are that the 12" television will be approximately $1400 while no price has been established for the 20" models.
Picture Size -
My first exposure to Stereoscopic/Active Shutter 3D (the format that most manufacturers use today) was on a 110-inch diagonal screen with the image projected from a projector mounted on a ceiling. Even with the flickering image on the screen, the effects were just stunning.
The IMAX passive polarized system is great for those who are bothered by the flicker on an active 3D system. However, the 3D effect is not as prominent.
What both a large projection unit and the IMAX theaters have in common is picture size. It's quite simple - the larger the picture, the better the 3D effect on the screen.
Earlier this year, I took a look at a 55" Panasonic 3D panel at Ovation in Indianapolis. I wanted a demonstration from one of their guys and he sat me down about four feet from the television, I put the glasses on and a computer generated program came up on the screen. Yes, there was less flicker than the original Sensio processor. And there was some good depth to the picture. But I then asked the salesperson, "How far back do your customers normally sit at home with a 55-inch flat panel like this one?"
He said, "Oh, I'd say anywhere from 10 to 15 feet."
I got up, measured off about 13 feet from the front of the flat panel and placed my chair there. I said, "OK, play it again."
The 3D image was nowhere near as defined as it was when I was closer to the set. Even the salesperson agreed with me that the 3D had lost its impact when we sat further away. "There's a much smaller visual 'sweet spot' when you're further back," he remarked.
Ambient Light -
The other thing most projection units and the IMAX theaters have in common is the lack of ambient light that filters into the room during the playing of the 3D movie. As I also noted during my 3D demo/experience at Ovation, there was a lot of ambient light in the room - not only from incandescent lighting, but from the late evening sunshine coming through the windows.
Even with a direct view flat panel television, the more ambient light in the room, the less effective the 3D image is. If you have the money to spend on your own home theater room with controlled lighting and shades, then 3D is probably worth the investment. But most people don't have the disposable cash to put down for a large home theater system - and a lot of people don't have the space, either.
The suggested retail price of most of the flat panel, 3D-ready televisions on the market place runs around $3000 dollars. Well, that's great if you have $3000 bucks to blow on a television when you could get a great non-3D set for half that price. The 82-inch Mitsubishi model - the WD82838 has a suggested retail of $4499. Still not all that outlandish, but still a chunk of change.
However, some careful shopping with find you some bargains - probably from dealers who are already worried about their 3D televisions in the stock room turning into expensive boat anchors because no one is buying them at the rate the manufacturers are churning them out. The Mitsubishi 82-inch unit is already being sold at around $3300 on sites like Amazon.com.
But you can also find bargains on the Samsung UN55C7000 55-inch flat panel - down to as low as $2597 at some places. Best Buy was recently running a promotion on a Samsung PN50C490B3D 50" model that came in just under $1000 bucks!
The cost of the televisions include two to four pair of glasses and a 3-D movie. But if you need more glasses, it's gonna cost you...
Yep, you gotta wear glasses to make the 3D image work. Some manufacturers are including up to four pairs of glasses in packages with the sale of 3D televisions. But if you decide you need a couple more because you have a family of six, glasses will range in price from about $100 to $150 a pair, depending upon the manufacturer.
If you wear regular glasses just to see a program on television, you'd have to put the 3D glasses over your regular glasses just to see the effects. That's not very comfortable and it makes for a horrible fashion statement. Some companies, such as Runco, are reportedly working on prescription glasses that will allow people to watch polarized 3D content both at home (on the Runco system) and at IMAX theaters without having to put 3D glasses over regular glasses.
Oh, and glasses from different manufacturers are not compatible. If you have a Panasonic 3D television and your neighbor has a Mitsubishi 3D set, you cannot invite one another over to your house to watch a 3D program with the different make of glasses. This is another shot in the foot the industry has given to the consumer when it comes to compatibility issues between companies.
However, at the recent CEDIA Expo in Atlanta, a company called XpanD debuted some universal 3D glasses that will reportedly work with any active stereoscopic 3D system. Prices range from $109 to $129, depending upon the retailer.
One of the things that initially doomed Sensio was the lack of viable 3D content that could be shown. Toward the end of their life of selling the Sensio 3D processor, only about 12 to 15 titles were available in 3D. And, believe it or not, a couple of the titles were porn movies.
A lot of the DVD's they had were computer generated features that had little or no storyline or actual meaningful content. The first mainstream 3D movie for Sensio - Spy Kids 3D- featured both computer generated graphics and live action 3D. But by the time the movie came out, it was too late to save Sensio as a manufacturer/distributor of these processors.
(Note - Sensio continues to do business designing 3D broadcast and processing systems for other manufacturers, most notably JVC. The guys - Nick and Richard - were truly ahead of their time. Today, they design and develop chip sets for Stereoscopic/active lens 3D systems. They found that being in the engineering and development end of 3D was much more lucrative than being a manufacturer of 3D processor units.)
The biggest problem with content had to do with the production problems that 3D posed to movie studios. There were a number of 3D movies that came out in the 50's and 60's that used dual 35mm cameras set up side by side with the center of the lenses approximately the same distance apart as the width between the eyes on a normal human face. The cameras were heavy and cumbersome, and it was very difficult to film action shots. And they were generally travelogue films or low budget sci-fi movies such as Cat-Women of the Moon or It Came From Outer Space. Sensio had access to nearly every 3D movie that was made from the 50's on, but getting a studio to produce the movies to work in a stereoscopic/active lens format was a major obstacle. Add to this, none of these movies were in high definition. The transfer to DVD was costly and the quality would be poor.
Sensio had meetings with notable film directors such as James Cameron, Tim Burton and Robert Rodriguez - all of whom saw the value of 3D production and the opening of a whole new frontier with modern 3D. Cameron went so far to help develop a special 3D camera that was digital and lightweight. It could be easily mounted or even carried by hand. Cameron made an IMAX documentary - Ghosts of the Abyss - where two robotic 3D cameras were used to go through the Titanic as it rests on the North Atlantic ocean floor. And, of course, Cameron scored big with his movie, Avatar, which featured both live action and computer generated 3D images.
Even with that said, there is still a dearth of Blu-Ray 3D titles available for home viewing. Warner Brothers studios recently announced the release of six titles this fall - effectively doubling the number of 3D titles available in Blu-Ray. Three of the Warner Brothers releases will be IMAX titles that were initially going to be packaged with televisions when they were sold.
The long-awaited and highly anticipated Avatar 3D Blu-Ray release has consisted mainly of rumors floated by various camps. James Cameron said earlier this spring Avatar will be released in November, but other on-line sources are saying that it may be only available when you buy a Panasonic 3D television beginning December 1. We'll have to see if that comes to fruition.
Broadcast 3D -
Up until earlier this year, programs broadcast in stereoscopic 3D were only available via closed circuit, shown primarily in large halls or movie theaters. The last three BCS Football Championship games were shown in 3D via closed circuit - but not without some pitfalls and hiccups along the way. The biggest problem was that in order to get a good 3D effect, most of the camera shots were at field level - not from a high vantage point that allowed the viewer to see plays unfold.
Earlier this year, The Masters was made available on-line and through Comcast cable systems in 3D. I understand the images were just stunning. This worked well because many of the camera shots in a golf tournament are from the ground.
In June, just in time for the World Cup, ESPN 3D debuted. Each of the World Cup games were shot in 3D. However, once again, much of the 3D was lost when they went to a camera shot from a high vantage point. Only when they went to a field level camera point of view was the 3D image prevalent. And it's difficult to follow the action at the field level.
As I pointed out earlier, DirecTV - in addition to ESPN 3D - has two other channels devoted to 3D content. And HBO recently announced that they will have on-demand 3D programming starting in 2011.
3D is what the gaming industry has been clamoring for for a number of years. 3D video games will allow users to fully immerse themselves into the experience. However, industry pundits differ on the impact 3D will initially have on the gaming community. Some are taking the stance of "too much, too soon", primarily because of the poor quality - both visually and strategically - of some of the initial 3D games that are in beta testing. Others, however, say, "Who cares?! It's 3D!"
But there is an ominous cloud on the horizon that both 3D television and 3D gaming manufacturers are significantly downplaying, or in some cases, not even addressing - the issue of health problems caused by watching 3D programming for long periods of time.
Health Issues -
At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2004, the guys from Sensio met with developers and designers from Sony Playstation, Microsoft XBox, Nintendo Wii and other gaming companies about the possibility of using the Sensio 3D processor in conjunction with gaming platforms. Each manufacturer said that doctors had advised them to not to go deep into 3D gaming because of the effects stereoscopic 3D can have on a person.
Prolonged exposure to 3D images on a screen can cause headaches, nausea, disorientation, and in some cases even epileptic fits and strokes. Children and teens under 18 are especially susceptible to discomfort and problems with long exposure to 3D. Of course, these are usually the ones playing video games. And they play them for hours on end.
Another warning doctors had for prolonged 3D exposure was no alcoholic beverages should be ingested before or during the 3D experience. Disorientation is heightened and blood pressure can rise dramatically. I also understand that pregnant women should not be exposed to 3D for long periods of time. I think it has something to do with their blood pressure, as well.
What is specified as prolonged exposure? The guys at Sensio told me nearly 7 years ago that doctors who advised the gaming companies said that anything over 45 to 60 minutes of 3D exposure is excessive.
3D movies and now broadcast content can get away with this because most of the 3D content is shown in segments of less than 60 minutes before going back to 2D for commercials or 2D segments in movies. It's nothing for a kid to be seated in front of a television playing a video game for two to four hours at a time. And think of all the college-aged kids who come home from the bars at 1 a.m. and stay up and play video games until 5 or 6 a.m.?
3D, basically, tricks your brain into thinking a three dimensional image is appearing before them on the screen. This process, called Stereopsis, is what makes you see optical illusions transform in front of you either in a drawing or in a picture. Because each eye works independently, the image in your brain is focused from the two retinas in your eyes. That's why when you hold a pencil at arms length, then close and open each eye one at a time, a different view of the pencil pops into your brain. If your brain is exposed to 3D content for long periods of time, once you go back to normal viewing your brain is still trying to figure out the Stereopsis process. This is what causes disorientation in many people.
The Stereopsis effect is stronger with some people, they can process the 3D images more easily. But with most Stereoscopic/active lens 3D content, there is a high rate "flicker" that occurs. Some people see that flicker more so than others, makingthe 3D image not as effective in their brain. But the flicker is also what can cause epileptic seizures in some people. This is called a photosensitive seizure.
In April of this year, Samsung Australia came out with a warning regarding the prolounged exposure to 3D content. (Read the warning here.) It addressed conditions such as altered vision, dizziness, loss of awareness, convulsions and motion sickness that can be caused by watching 3D.
Initially, North American branches of the major 3D television manufacturers downplayed or refuted the claims by Samsung Australia. But Samsung's corporate office in Korea later backed those warnings, but said that it would only affect a small percentage of the population. In other words, Samsung basically put out the warning to cover their ass in case someone comes home drunk, fires up a 3D movie on a Samsung television and falls down the steps from disorientation. "We told you not to do that," they can claim when a lawsuit will be inevitably brought against them for such a scenario.
While the above information is probably more than you asked for in trying to make your decision whether or not to buy a 3D television this fall, I believe I've given you enough ammunition to make such a decision. I can guarantee there will be a lot of pressure on retailers to sell 3D televisions, and that's based upon the number of trainings the television manufacturers are doing with some of the salespeople of national and regional audio/video chain stores.
But because both the Consumer Electronics Association and manufacturers are both pushing 3D hard, retailers may end up losing money on the sales of 3D televisions. Profit margins are slim already, and if they have to begin to give deep discounts just to move televisions out the door during the holiday selling season the only one who wins are the manufacturers and you, the consumer. The store that you may buy your 3D television from this year may not be around in six to twelve months. And it will be the fault of the television manufacturers pushing a new technology on people who probably don't want it and don't need it. Not for awhile - at least until more content becomes available.
In consumer research conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association, 50% of the people surveyed said they had experienced a 3-D demonstration either at a retail electronics store or at someone's home. 79% of those surveyed said that their experience with a 3-D demo was good to excellent (46% of those said their experience was excellent). 64% of those who saw a 3-D demo said they would probably browse for a 3-D television on their next visit to an electronics store. However, only 30% of those surveyed said they would probably buy a 3-D television within the next 12 months. And only 18% of those who were questioned by the CEA said they'd buy a 3-D television in 18 to 24 months.
A recent trip to St. Louis allowed me to talk to a lot of salespeople at the Ultimate Electronics and American TV stores in the area. Nearly every store said they were selling "some" 3-D televisions, but they were doing more demonstrating than selling. One of the sales guys at an Ultimate Electronics store told me, "We're selling a few (3-D flat panels), but if people are coming in looking at a similar priced 2-D set, they'll end up taking the regular non-3-D unit 80% of the time."
3D television has its backers and its detractors. But it appears that it isn't going away anytime soon. The biggest question will be if it gains traction with consumers who will use the 3D feature on a regular basis or if they'll look at it a couple times, say, "Neato!" then go back to watching 2D content. Making 3D content available both on Blu-Ray discs and via broadcast medium will be the big key. It may just be better to hold out for a little while longer as prices go down and watchable programming goes up.