Enter song title:

Friday, March 06, 2009

The pace of technological change can seem overwhelming. Gadgets that were once the preserve of science fiction films – watch phones, pocket computers, even flying cars – are slowly filtering down into modern life. Next on the list could be 3D television, with some of the biggest electronics companies convinced that this will be the next big thing.

Film makers, broadcasters and manufacturers are all throwing their weight behind 3D television. Sky has claimed that the technology could be in UK homes in time for the London Olympics, while at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, every manufacturer from Sony to LG was showing off 3D sets.

And this week, at another gadget showcase in Germany, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications have demonstrated a 3D television that can be controlled by gestures. Viewers of the iPoint 3D TV don’t need to wear silly glasses to watch, and can change channels simply by flicking a finger towards the screen.

There’s real momentum building behind 3D. Movie studios are investing heavily, particularly in animated films. The recent Disney movie Bolt was shot in 3D, and forthcoming releases Shrek Goes Fourth and Toy Story 3 will also get the three-dimensional treatment. Even older films are being buffed up to cash in – reversioned re-releases of Chicken Little and The Nightmare Before Christmas made significant profits.

But it’s not just animated films that are going 3D. Director James Cameron is rumoured to be working on a live action 3D movie, believing it to be the ultimate way to enjoy a film. “When you are viewing 'in stereo’, more neurons are firing, more blood is pumping through the brain,” he says. “This is the ultimate immersive media.”

Watching television in three dimensions seems a natural evolution. After all, we see the world in 3D. The difficulty is that, even despite recent advances, some elements of the viewing experience are less than ideal.

While the red-and-blue 3D specs of the 1950s have made way for slightly more sophisticated polarised glasses, the fact remains that in order to watch most 3D televisions, you have to wear special headgear. That’s because in order to experience 3D, each eye needs to see the image slightly differently, as in real life, to build a multidimensional picture.

Not only that, but the viewing angle for many 3D televisions is quite restrictive, with viewers needing to sit face-on at the correct range in order to see the three-dimensional image clearly. Although this works fine in cinemas, it’s less appropriate for living rooms.

Some companies, such as Philips, are attempting to overcome this hurdle by developing screens that don’t require glasses. The prototype Philips WOWvx television, for example, produces a 3D image that can be comfortably viewed from a variety of positions and angles by using a lenticular lens over the TV’s LCD panel.

The question is, of course, whether consumers – many of whom have only just splashed out on the latest high-definition flat-screen televisions – are willing to upgrade to 3D sets, particularly in the current economic climate.

The lack of 3D material is also a problem. Movies aside, broadcasters are yet to agree on a common standard for filming and transmitting in 3D, and for many, the cost of the equipment needed to capture and generate 3D footage is prohibitive. Filming a sporting event in 3D, for instance, would require two cameras, placed closely together to mimic the alignment of human eyes, for every desired camera angle.

“I think it will be a long time before 3D television is cheap or compelling enough to be mass market,” warns Tom Dunmore, editor-in-chief of gadget magazine Stuff. “The technology is almost there, but I’m not sure the interest is.”

It's coming right at you

The biggest barrier to the success of 3D television in the home is not the glasses or the cost of having to buy a new TV — it’s persuading people that the technology is worth having. For that, there’s no substitute for seeing 3D in action, which is why Panasonic spent £14,000 shipping its 103in prototype to Amsterdam for a European premiere.

It’s only after you’ve seen all the old 3D tricks – balls whizzing at your head so fast you duck, for instance – that its qualities become compelling. A state-of-the-art 3D TV doesn’t give you a headache like previous models and, for the first time, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick.

Panasonic showed footage from the Olympics – lines of Chinese drummers streaming off into the distance – and also from a football match. If there was a shock, it was simply in how much it felt like being there, although the size of the massive TV screen helped.

Panasonic uses high-definition Blu-ray technology for its 3D system, and the company hopes to bring the TV manufacturers and Hollywood studios together to deliver the common, open technical standard that’s crucial for commercial success.

The system offers full high-definition resolution, but the company says that represents a fairly minor tweak of pre-existing technology. With the standards of HDMI cables and Blu-ray DVDs already well established, this new system represents a lesser challenge than, say, developing DVDs to replace video. None the less, producing products ready to go on sale next year, as Panasonic hopes, is remarkably ambitious.

Why is it pushing a new technology so hard? Hollywood studios reckon, privately, that there is three times as much profit in a 3D DVD than in a conventional one. Live 3D TV, however, remains some way off.


Enter your email address: