Aside from Apple's new iPad, 3D TV could be the next big thing in consumer electronics. But it's still early days, and that means consumers might want to wait for the technology to mature before jumping on the bandwagon.
There's no question that 3D TV was the biggest thing going at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year in January. Every major TV maker from Samsung to LG to Sony to Panasonic said they would have 3D capable TVs on the market within the first half of the year.
The hope among the consumer electronics industry is that the 3D feature will help spur new sales of TVs.
Next week, Comcast will show the Masters golf tournament, produced by the Augusta National Golf Club, in 3D. It will be the first linear broadcast of a live event in 3D , meaning viewers can watch it without having to access the event via pay-per-view or on-demand.
James Cameron's 3D blockbuster "Avatar," now the highest grossing movie of all time, has fueled the growing frenzy for 3D TV.
But experts agree that 3D TV is still in its early days. What this means for consumers is that there is still too little content, distribution is scarce, and technical kinks on the TVs still need to be worked out.
"If you bought a new HD TV in the last couple of years, you don't need to run out and get one with 3D," said David Katzmaier, CNET Reviews senior editor for TVs. "I know I am not rushing to get a new TV. It's early and it will take some time for everything to fall into place."
A few years ago, TV manufacturers experienced a sales boom as consumers upgraded to digital TVs in anticipation of the government's mandated switch to digital TV broadcasts last year. Eager shoppers have also been upgrading to high-definition TVs as movie studios, cable and satellite operators, and TV broadcasters have begun offering more programming in HD.
Prices have come down dramatically on TVs. But now manufacturers are looking for something new to offer to keep consumers paying a premium for new products. Last year, some manufactures focused on adding Internet-enabled widgets to their TVs, which allows viewers to also get real-time weather, and access Facebook and Flickr on the Internet directly from their TVs
But Blu-ray players and other devices, such as the Roku box, came on the market at much lower prices offering similar functionality.
3D could be the next feature to spur premium sales. To watch a movie or sporting event broadcast in 3D, viewers need a new 3D-capable TV. Manufacturers showed off some 3D TVs at last year's CES. And even more were seen at this year's CES.
In March Samsung and Panasonic started selling the first 3D TVs in the U.S. By summer, LG, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio are expected to have 3D in their high-end TVs as well. From now on, all high-end, HD TVs are likely to include 3D. And the price premium for the feature isn't that high. The lowest priced 3D TV today is $1,700, on par with other high-end high definition TVs in the same class.
The runaway success of "Avatar" has also ignited consumer interest and it's grabbed Hollywood's attention. Now movie studios are producing new 3D movies and retrofitting older ones with 3D. Even recently released movies are getting the 3D treatment post-production, such as the new "Clash of the Titans" remake in theaters now.
New Blu-Ray players that can play 3D movies for the new 3D TVs have also hit the market, and movie studios are promising at least 70 titles of Blu-Ray 3D movies by the end of the year. "Avatar" will be one of them.
While more content is on the way, currently the only 3D DVD in the correct format is the children's animated film "Monsters vs. Aliens."
Just as it did for high-definition television, sports shot in 3D should be popular with viewers.
"Sports and movies will drive demand for 3D programming," said Derek Harrar, senior vice president of video and entertainment services.
The Masters golf tournament is the first live sporting event broadcast in 3D for TV viewers, but others are expected to follow shortly. ESPN will start broadcasting some content in 3D this summer with a World Cup soccer match. And it will broadcast additional events, such as the Summer X Games, NBA games, and college basketball and football in 3D too.
TV service providers are lining up to carry the 3D programming. Satellite TV provider DTV says it will have 3D TV channels this June. Comcast is demonstrating its first live sporting event for 3D. The company said it plans to offer 3D programming later this year too. It won't offer channels of continuous programming, but it will offer movies and events on demand in 3D.
"This technology is really ideal for events," Harrar said. "You probably wouldn't want to sit around and watch the evening news in 3D."
Other TV service providers will announce offerings later this year too. Cablevision recently announced it has licensed technology from RealD to format 3D content. And the cable provider plans to use the technology to telecast National Hockey League games.
Verizon Communications said that it will announce its 3D offering in time for the holiday shopping season in the fall. But the company, which offers its Fios TV service over its fiber to the home network, would not provide more specifics.
"We're monitoring the early sales of 3D TVs with interest and expect to announce a 3D offering well in advance of the holiday TV shopping season, when 3D television sales will expand," said Shawn Strickland, vice president of Fios product management for Verizon. "3D content is just now becoming available from a handful of providers like ESPN. As it becomes available, TV service providers like Verizon will negotiate deals to telecast that content. We are in active discussions with a number of companies in the emerging 3D value chain."
According to Mark Francisco, a technical fellow at Comcast, it doesn't require more bandwidth to deliver 3D content over its cable plant. Set-top boxes can be upgraded to receive the signals. All that's needed is a TV with 3D capability to show the stereoscopic images.
But Verizon's Strickland said there are still some technical kinks to be worked out on the TV side.
The most obvious hurdle is the fact that viewers still need to wear glasses when they watch 3D TV. TV manufacturers are working on technology for glass-less 3D viewing. While similar technology is being used in digital signage, it's still years away from showing up in consumer TVs.
Simply getting people to even wear special glasses isn't the biggest problem. The real issue is that the glasses that work with the current version of "active" 3D TVs require crystal shutter glasses, which work by very quickly blocking each eye in sequence. The glasses, in addition to the liquid-crystal lenses, contain electronics and batteries, typically good for 80 or more hours, that sync to the TV via an infrared or Bluetooth signal. These glasses cost about $150 a pop. And to make matters worse, glasses made for one manufacturer's TV won't work with a competitor's TV, even though it uses the same "active" 3D technology.
One company that makes 3D eyewear, XpanD, is already working on brand-agnostic 3D glasses. The company has been manufacturing 3D glasses for movie theaters in Europe and Asia for years, and it is now moving to make the glasses work for people's homes as well.
But even these glasses, which are supposed to be available in June, won't be cheap, setting consumers back between $125 and $150 each.
A more advanced version of the 3D TV technology called "passive" 3D doesn't require battery powered glasses. Viewers can wear cheap glasses that many people are already wearing in theaters for 3D movies like "Up" and "Avatar." Instead of spending $150, these glasses cost only about $1 to $1.50 a piece. That said, the passive 3D TVs are likely to be more expensive. Exactly, how much more expensive is unclear.
Some people estimate that these TVs will be $500 to $1,000 more expensive than the active 3D TVs.
It's also still unclear when TVs using passive 3D technology will hit the U.S. market. Comcast demonstrated an LG TV in New York this week that uses passive 3D technology. Comcast's technical expert Mark Francisco said he was told the TV would be on the market here this summer, but LG's U.S. public relations team said it wasn't expecting any passive 3D TVs in the U.S. this year.
On Thursday Engadget reported that LG will be selling its polarized or "passive" 3D TV in the U.K. starting this summer to coincide with the launch of 3D programming from Sky.
Glasses are just the beginning when it comes to the glitches that still need to be worked out for 3D TV.
"Technological challenges remain, as technology that enables TVs and set-top boxes to adjust the set to display 3D content has not been perfected or distributed, causing a major viewing hassle for consumers," Verizon's Strickland said. "Our goal is to offer a product that has a fully automated HDMI format-switching capability that switches between 2D and 3D automatically, not via ponderous access to the TV's setup menu."
Another issue is that the "3D-ness" of a 3D picture is different for different people. For example, animated films actually have less of a 3D effect because they are designed for children, whose eyes are set closer together than adults. The less so-called 3D effect that is used, the more comfortable it is for most viewers. Some TVs, such as the Samsung 3D TV available now, allows consumers to adjust the 3D-ness of the picture. But what is good for one viewer may not be good for another, so even though this might be beneficial for some viewers it could still be a problem for others watching the same movie.
"Ideally, the adjustment should happen in the glasses," said CNET's Katzmaier, who has written an FAQ to answer common questions about 3D TV.
What this all means is that the 3D TV technology is still young. More content is needed. And it could take some time before TV service providers offer enough programming to make it worth the added expense of buying a 3D TV.
So unless you're a die-hard 3D fan, or you are an early adopter, you might want to wait. It might not be long before 3D becomes a standard feature on new TVs, much like high-definition.