3D Home Theater: Should You Wait?

July 2010

201007_jaws3d2010 could be thought of as the Year of 3D TV. It was everywhere at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in January, with a huge number of manufacturers either showcasing their new 3D technology or ensuring that their upcoming models would be "3D-ready." The hype made me regret buying my new plasma TV -- 3D TV was due out any time, and would revolutionize the home viewing experience. But reading all the enthusiastic Web coverage of the 3D technology on display at CES, I was surprised at the tepid response from the SoundStage! Network team. Basically, their attitude seemed to be "Been there, done that." Why?

Been there, done that

3D movies are nothing new. The first film shown to the public in 3D was The Power of Love, in 1922. There was a big push in the 1950s, with such forgettable titles as Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Gorilla at Large (1954). I remember that, in the 1970s, I bugged my Dad to buy the cardboard-framed red-and-blue glasses to watch the 3D movie event of the week on TV -- usually the same trashy 3D movies that had been shown in theaters in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1980s saw another explosion of 3D, with Friday the 13th Part III (1982) and Jaws 3D (1983) among the more memorable.

In the last few years there’s been another flurry of 3D movies, mostly computer-animated. This past year I’ve taken my four-year-old twins to see Up (2009) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010). They think every movie is in 3D -- that’s all they’ve seen in theaters. At the end of 2009, recent 3D offerings culminated in the release of what many have called a game-changer for the technology: Avatar. These three movies differed from past 3D films in mostly avoiding the cheesier scenes -- things popping out of boxes at the audience, and so forth. And the screen is brighter than for past 3D releases, so it doesn’t look as dim. In short, 3D in movie theaters can now look from the good to the spectacular.

3D TV

201007_glassesIn the last few months a steady stream of new 3D TVs has come to market, most at the higher end of the price scale. If I were shopping for a premium TV, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy right now -- the 3D sets don’t cost much more than last year’s top 2D sets, so you aren’t paying much extra for that third dimension. However, one thing that adds to the cost is extra pairs of 3D glasses. Most sets come with a pair or two, but to outfit an entire family, you’re looking at an extra $200 per person. To top this off, the active shutter glasses made by Samsung and Panasonic are incompatible -- unless you wear them upside down. You could invite a friend to watch 3D at your place, but he’d look ridiculous if his 3D TV is made by a different company.

Most of the people I talk to about 3D TV who don’t wear glasses of any kind are turned off by 3D glasses. They prefer to wait for the day when 3D TVs are autostereoscopic (i.e., glasses-free). But this will probably be a few years down the road, at the earliest. I wear glasses part of the time, and find wearing 3D glasses over my regular specs uncomfortable. If I were to get a 3D TV in the near future, I’d have to put in contact lenses just to watch in 3D.

3D Blu-ray players and receivers

To display a 3D movie on your new 3D set, you may or may not need a new 3D-capable Blu-ray player. These new players can send 1080p content to each eye separately and require a new digital interface, HDMI 1.4. There are reports that existing BD players will send 3D content through their HDMI 1.3a interface, such as the claim that the Sony PlayStation 3 can be upgraded to do this. But the HDMI 1.3a interface is bandwidth-limited to 1080i to each eye, not full 1080p. That’s not a big problem for some, but most people will want the full 1080p experience.

How you get the signal from a 3D-capable BD player to your 3D TV will affect what else you need to upgrade. Those who don’t have a separate sound system connected won’t have to worry -- they can connect a 3D BD player to a 3D TV and get 3D in full 1080p. But most of us use a receiver or A/V processor to extract high-resolution audio from the BD before sending it on to a display device. Most high-end receivers also provide some sort of video processing to clean up and optimize poorly transferred movies. 3D BD players threaten to make this component obsolete, too; an unbroken HDMI 1.4 pathway is needed to send 1080p 3D content to a 3D TV.

Fortunately, one company, Panasonic, has already released two 3D BD players with dual HDMI 1.4 outputs. This will allow you to send 3D content to your 3D TV and the hi-rez audio signal to your receiver. The only problem now is that the 3D video content can’t be run through the video processor in your receiver, so you need two HDMI inputs on your new set: one for 3D content, one for 2D. Maybe the new HDMI 1.4-capable receiver upgrade doesn’t look so bad after all!

Cables

As I mentioned above, for full 3D, you’ll need an HDMI 1.4 cable. (The standard was revised in March 2010 to HDMI 1.4a, to include a host of enhancements, mostly for 3D broadcast content.) Or will you? Some manufacturers say that their implementation of HDMI 1.3a is robust enough for full transmission of 1080p 3D. This could be a big problem for those of us who’ve run the cables for our projectors or TVs through the walls. My TV is mounted above my fireplace with in-wall cables provided as part of the purchase price of the house. It’s only HDMI 1.3 at best; if my cables can’t transmit the full 3D signal, my options would be to rip out my walls and run new cables, or live with an unsightly cable dangling down in front of the fireplace. However, my home-theater room has conduits in the walls and ceiling through which I can easily run a new HDMI 1.4 cable, or whatever the latest standard will be.

Content

201007_monsters3dLooking at the recent movie releases in 3D, most of the content is animation. I think 3D enhances animation, and I gladly paid the premium ticket price to watch Up and How to Train Your Dragon in theaters. When I watched the 3D demo of Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) in stores, it looked fantastic, adding realistic depth to the picture.

What about live-action films? As the critic Roger Ebert recently pointed out, not everything is better in 3D, and in fact some things can be worse. For years, cinematographers have used selective focus and blurred backgrounds to convey depth and focus viewers’ attention on certain parts of the image, but with most 3D content, everything is in focus. For 3D to stick, it will require directors and cinematographers to approach it as a new art form to be mastered.

Conclusion

After researching this article and looking at all aspects of bringing 3D to home theaters, I can see why our CES 2010 team had such a ho-hum attitude toward 3D. They’ve seen such hype before, with SACD and HD DVD and DVD-Audio. Obviously, the consumer-electronics companies would love for us to replace all the flat-panel TVs they’ve just sold us (and told us will last 20 years). After being sucked in and burned by numerous new formats, I think I’ll wait this one out a bit. Until there’s enough compelling 3D content available in a home format, I see no reason to replace my gear just to enter that virtual third dimension.

. . . Vince Hanada
vinceh@soundstagenetwork.com

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