Crystal-clear images of flowers clash with blurry cartoons on an array of huge television screens at this week’s IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin.
Put on a pair of 3D glasses and the visual experience is reversed. In this alternate virtual reality, the cartoons become clear and leap from the screen as the flowers fade and lose focus.
The contrast between the technologies underline the rapid advances that look set to revolutionise the humble “box” that has sat in most people’s living rooms since television became the focal point in family homes in developed countries in the late 1950s.
But the in- and out-of-focus experience at IFA (assuming the viewer has the requisite pair of 3D glasses) is also representative of bewildering choices that many consumers will soon face – when not long ago the key television buying decision was whether to upgrade to a flat-screen set capable of receiving high-definition broadcasts.
The next consumer electronics goal is to lead viewers into another dimension: 3D has been the big theme of the world’s biggest consumer electronics show this week, as it was a year ago when Sony became the first to unveil ambitious plans for bringing 3D TV to the mass market.
The renewed focus this year is as much a reflection of constant innovation in the industry – to overcome a myriad of technical problems – as it is drum-banging by the manufacturers to get the concept accepted.
The biggest hurdle to acceptance are the glasses. Many consumers can’t abide them and simply donning a pair is not the only problem. The “active shutter” version, which produce by far the best viewing experience on high-end television sets, require charging as they need their own power source to rapidly open and close the shutter over each eye.
Availability of the glasses can also undermine the “social” aspect of watching television. At a recent London party, the host tried to impress his guests by putting on a 3D movie. The four people wearing the 3D glasses were suitably wowed but the 16 without were left decidedly underwhelmed. One even complained of double vision.
It was rumoured at IFA that Toshiba had overcome this problem and would unveil a 3D set that did not require glasses. However, this did not materialise.
“We are investigating glasses-less 3D TV for small-inch TV sizes, but unfortunately today we are not able to make this available and we hope to have some kind of answer around October,” said Atsushi Murasawa, head of visual products.
But it is not just the advent of 3D TV that threatens to confuse the viewer. The traditional television makers are under unprecedented stress as they come under assault from technology companies including Apple and Google, which have their own designs on the “box”.
Two other shifts are reshaping the industry: the advent of web-connected televisions and the related need to come up with online content services to match those of the big tech invaders.
In contrast to 3D, enabling internet connectivity for the television has been easy, with the addition of internal WiFi chips or hard-wire ethernet connections.
This also seems to be something consumers really want. A survey carried out by Toshiba in Europe last month indicated online connectivity (69 per cent) was the most important television feature for consumers after the best possible picture (91 per cent).
Perhaps fearing the answer, the survey does not appear to have asked for views on 3D TV.
The iSuppli research firm expects only 4m 3D TV sets to be sold globally this year, compared with 28m web-connected televisions.
Internet connectivity is interesting television makers as much as the likes of Google and Apple as it presents other opportunities: a slice of the advertising and content sales as web video and other services come to the screen.
But online connectivity also promises to upset the traditional way of watching movies at home. After winning a long fight to get Blu-ray accepted as the standard format for HD video players, Sony this week appeared to herald the end of a home-based device for watching films by announcing streaming movie and music services through its televisions over the internet from remote servers.
Kaz Hirai, Sony executive vice-president, insisted Blu-ray was far from dead. “A lot of consumers still like to have the physical medium in their hands.”
“Blu-ray disks are going to be with us for a very long time when they can hold up to 50 gigabytes of data,” he added. “Downloading that amount would be a challenge.”
Not according to Apple and Microsoft though, who have shunned Blu-ray on their devices and say consumers prefer streaming.
An army of internet-enabled set-top box makers are saying the same thing. The challenges to the traditional television makers are as varied as the choices all viewers will have to grapple with in the years ahead.