3D TV set to become reality

After years of experimentation, false starts and broken promises, the dream of high-quality, low-cost 3D TV, or ‘stereoscopic’ television, may finally be about to become a reality in Las Vegas where more than 100,000 technology enthusiasts have gathered for the annual Consumer Electronics Show.

The Consumer Electronics Association’s annual techfest has been the launch platform for many of the industry’s most popular product categories, including portable MP3 players, digital cameras and high-definition flat screen displays.

But much of the buzz around this year’s show is about a technology that has been in development for decades: 3D TV.

“3D in the home is far and away one of the biggest stories at CES this year,” says Shawn DuBravac, research director and chief economist for the Washington-based CEA. “We have been talking about 3D at CES for many years, but this year we are taking the next step . . . we are seeing products that are ready for market, real products with real prices and release dates.”

So what has changed? Mr DuBravac argues that the key technology building blocks needed to deliver 3D video content to consumers in the home including high-quality HDTV sets are in place.

At the same time the standards needed to support 3D TV are either in place or close to being agreed. For example, the Blu-ray disc association agreed a 3D standard last month, which paves the way for 3D movies and games to be delivered via Blu-ray disc players and Sony’s PS3 video game consoles by the middle of this year.

Just as importantly, they argue that the key industry players – content creators, distributors and consumer electronics manufacturers – are all pulling in the same direction.

Spurred on by the success of 3D movies such as Avatar, other Hollywood studios are throwing their weight behind 3D entertainment. Disney and DreamWorks Animation have announced that all future animated titles will be available in 3D.

Meanwhile DirectTV, the US satellite television provider, plans to introduce a 3D channel in 2010 and ESPN will start broadcasting in 3D this summer with a World Cup football match. This week Discovery Communications, Sony and Imax announced plans for a joint venture that will roll out the first 24/7 dedicated 3D television network in the US next year.

“It is clear to us that consumers will always migrate to a better and richer entertainment experience, and together we are determined to be the leader in providing that around the world,” says Howard Stringer, Sony’s chief executive.

More than any other top-tier TV maker, Sony is betting big on 3D and has dedicated a big chunk of its huge 25,000sq ft booth at this year’s CES to 3D products and content. “We were aiming to make a big splash with 3D at CES,” says Christopher Fawcett, vice-president of Sony’s home audio and video group.

Significantly, Sony is one of three top-tier TV manufacturers that have teamed up with RealD and thrown its weight behind RealD’s active shutter technology. Currently, viewers need to wear specially-designed glasses in order to experience the full 3D effects. These spectacles can be either passive – think of the cardboard glasses with red and blue lenses – or active eyewear which uses synchronised shutters to block the 3D TV image from one eye and then the other very quickly.

Both methods ‘fool’ the brain into interpreting two separate images (one for each eye) into a stereoscopic view.

This week Samsung and JVC announced they had signed technology deals with RealD, while Vizio, the leading cut-price HDTV brand in the US, announced a deal with Sensio to include Sensio’s 3D technology into its new line of HD3D TVs.

Fortunately, as Jeff Goldstein, Sony’s vice-president in charge of television product marketing says: “TVs are fairly agnostic [on standards], the only difference is how we bring 3D content from the screen to your eyes. We’re not fighting a format war . . . Here’s a case where it’s content and content makers and providers that are driving this and not the electronics side.”

Persuading credit-strapped consumers to buy may still be tough. But Jennifer Colegrove, an analyst with DisplaySearch, a US-based market research group, argues that 3D displays are taking off due to increasing availability of 3D content.

Michael Lewis, RealD’s chief executive agrees. “I think 3D on the TV is going to be driven by studio content and gaming,” he says. “What you are probably going to see over the next few years is a preponderance of active glasses rather than passive ones . . . then as time goes on, you will probably move to passive eyewear and ultimately to no glasses at all.

“We have the technology for [no glasses],” he says. “But if I had to guess it’s probably five to seven years away – it revolves around a lot more processing power and faster refresh rates, but the good news is TVs are getting better and better.”

If all goes to plan, the CEA estimates that this year about 4.3m 3D sets will be sold in the US and by 2013, 25 per cent of all televisions sold in the US will be 3D ones.

DisplaySearch forecasts that the total stereoscopic 3D display market will increase from 700,000 units and $902m in revenues in 2008 to 196m units and $22bn in revenues in 2018.

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