At a recent London shindig to promote its3D television sets, Samsung revealed that the active shutter glasses used to view its glorious, mighty , breathtaking 3D content are based on the same technology as Panasonic’s, only they’re reversed. That is to say, using your Sammy 3D specs to view Panasonic’s 3DTVs won’t work — unless you flip them upside down. You read that right, the two companies have opted for different implementations of the same technology, resulting in the farcical outcome that glasses will be interchangeable between their sets only if you’re happy to wear them upside down. How that’s gonna help the 3D takeup effort, we don’t know, but Samsung R&D chief Simon Lee does see a light at the end of this dim, poorly focused tunnel, stating that manufacturers are likely to agree a common active shutter glasses standard “as early as next year.” You might wanna look XpanD’s way if you want universal compatibility before then, or away in disgust if you’re already tired of all the absurdity surrounding 3D.
Not sure why we’ve been putting this off, but we’ll just come right out and say it: there’s no doubt that this was the year for 3D at CES. We walked the show floor for countless hours and can tell you that just about everyone was showing something related to 3D at their booths. Most of these demos required a bit of a wait to experience them (thanks, hype), and everywhere you went people were talking about 3D. Granted, not all of that talk was positive, but it was talk nonetheless. Whether or not the technology will be seen in history as a success in the market place is obviously still up in the air, and much like a finely crafted episode of Lost, 3D at CES this year was littered with more questions than answers.
Who will be the first, the best?
Someone has to be the first to market, and someone the best — though not necessarily the same company — but based on CES demos and announcements, that someone appears to be Panasonic. This isn’t much of a surprise since Panasonic has been doing lots of 3D demos since CES last year, and it even drove a truck around the country showing it off. But while Panasonic had the best 3D demo this year, it might not be first to market, as DLP fans will tell you they were first (and by years). That said, this new 3D technology isn’t exactly the same as what Mitsubishi and Samsung have been doing, but the new formats will be backwards compatible. Mitsubishi announced a new converter box that will allow the newer sequential 3D to checkerboard 3D that its DLP sets support, and it is assumed this same box will work on Samsung DLPs and plasmas. These aren’t the only front runners, ‘course. In fact Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba and Vizio were all talking 3D in press releases and showing live action demos. Like the rest of the HD market, most of the new 3DTVs were LCDs, and although LG did announce new plasmas, none were of the 3D variety like Samsung and Panny. Only Vizio dared to put a price on 3D, and some manufacturers wouldn’t even give model numbers, so it’s hard to tell exactly when this technology is going to come home (and how badly it’ll dent the wallet when it does). Still, we’d be shocked to see ship dates slip beyond 2010, and if we were the betting type, we’d guess that the first wave will land in the summer.
3D Blu-ray players will obviously play an important role as in-home 3D attempts to blossom, and Broadcom was on hand showing off its new chip for these very decks. We’re guessing said chip will find a home in the new players announced by Samsung, Toshiba, Panasonic and Sony, though no one has yet to come clean and make that clarification. Interestingly, the maker of one of our favorite Blu-ray players didn’t announce a 3D version, and while we’re not sure what LG is waiting for (market acceptance, perhaps?), we’d be shocked if we didn’t see one at some point this year.
RealD is a winner, again
Just like in the theater, RealD seemed to have the most traction at home. What’s different is that while the RealD glasses you’ve worn at the theater were less than $1 and of the circular polarized variety, the RealD glasses that Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba are using are active shutter glasses — only JVC is using circular polarized. There were other glasses on display though — Gunnar Optiks was showing some more stylish ones, and XpanD was showing active shutter with Bluetooth instead of IR, which is the same tactic that Vizio is using. XpanD also told us that its IR active shutter glasses would work with other 3DTVs, which makes some sense since the main 3D demo at Panasonic’s booth was using XpanD glasses, not RealDs.
What about content?
Just ask Samsung or Mitsubishi and they’ll tell you that 3DTV is nothing without content. We learned all about the 3D Blu-ray spec and that the PS3 would do 3D before CES, but during the show we were able to dig in deeper and reveal that the Blu-ray spec isn’t what it could be. Even before DirecTV had a chance to make an announcement at CES, someone let slip that the carrier would have 3D programming this year — and it brought a 3D demo (which looked great) to CES. Couple this with announcements from ESPN as well as Sony, IMAX and Discovery, and you’ve got the promise of some compelling 3D content at home very soon. ESPN has promised World Cup Soccer this year and the BCS National Championship game in 2011 with other events scattered in between, but while we expect a few IMAX movies from Sony and Discovery, so far the exact programming picture is still very cloudy. The only thing we do know is that three animated features will be out on Blu-ray starting with either Monsters vs Aliens or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs this summer, and Disney’s A Christmas Carol in December. The one title we don’t know about is Avatar, which we just have to believe will be out on 3D Blu-ray this year. We’re sure there will be even more 3D content to scope out as the bandwagon grows, and we’ve already seen streaming services get the 3D itch.
And video games?
Besides movies and sports, games may be the biggest beneficiary of 3D displays. The video game edition of Avatar is already available (and 3D-enabled) on both Sony and Microsoft’s boxes, so the PS3 version we played is just like what’s available at home right now. While the extra dimension couldn’t raise a very average adventure game to the heights of an Assassin’s Creed II, the effect did its job of bringing us further into the world and making it seem even more realistic. While a demo run of Gran Turismo 5 was slightly less impressive (varying greatly depending on camera angle), making things blow up in our faces playing Super Stardust HD clearly showed there will be compelling reasons to upgrade with the technology in the right game maker’s hands. On the PC side, NVIDIA has been pushing 3D capabilities for quite some time, and while most of our demos consisted of Blu-ray 3D showings from Cyberlink and WinDVD, we got enough gaming in to figure out that shutter glasses will soon be as common as headsets, precision mice and customized keyboards on the desks of shooter fans — if WoW ever goes 3D, there could be serious problems.
The new “upconverting?”
Even with major content providers on board, native 3D content will be scarce for some time, just like the rollout of HDTV. That’s a gap several manufacturers are looking to fill by providing technology for converting 2D to 3D. If that sounds a lot like the scaling buzz applied to DVDs and other standard-definition video, that’s because it is, as shown by Toshiba’s decision to expand its Resolution+ branding to Cell TV hardware that upscales and can convert from 2D to 3D in realtime. It showed off a demo that did an effective job separating different planes on simulated home video footage to make it 3D. Unfortunately, that didn’t make watching someone else’s vacation tapes any less boring, and popping elements out like cardboard cutouts seemed like the cheap gimmickry we were hoping to avoid. Samsung had the most effective conversion demo, plugging a standard Xbox 360 into one of its new displays and letting us play Gears of War 2 converted to 3D. While there wasn’t any extra detail to be found, it showed a subtle amount of additional depth that brought us even further into the game, especially when launching mortar shells at far off opponents. Sony announced plans to convert significant amounts of Jimi Hendrix footage to 3D for an upcoming Blu-ray release and even demoed some concert video in its CES theater — in this case the added depth did help the “you are there” feeling of a concert experience, but it still couldn’t compare with anything created natively for the new format.
While we’re sure someone will attempt to be the “Fox Widescreen” of 3D with converted footage on their broadcasts — JVC was showing off a rack mounted unit aimed at broadcasters for just this purpose — it will probably suffer the same fate and eventually go away altogether. The good news? Nothing we saw conjured up memories of the Cowboys Stadium 2D-to-3D disaster, and in some cases it could even be a very useful feature while we wait for content to catch up with displays. But just like DVD upscaling, even if it’s a high priced feature now, it will likely spread out across all displays in the future if customers enjoy it. We’ll be keeping a careful eye to see who has the best processing technology in real world situations later this year.
The glasses-free option
Ah yes, the nirvana of glasses-free 3D. While it was on display at more than one location this year, there’s still a number of factors keeping it from coming into play in our home viewing. Consistent on all three displays was a focus on CGI animations, not any kind of live video or other TV-style content. Though advances in standard HDTVs have increased the resolution behind the lenticular film that enables this technology, most of the progress displayed by Intel and Magnetic3D was on their ability to process and render images so they’ll pop out even when viewed from multiple angles. That’s useful for their intended use in POS advertisements, slot machines and the like — and it will surely impress digital signage nuts in the crowd — but it still suffers lost resolution and requires extra processing power for each viewing angle. With most viewers unwilling to assume a Sheldon Cooper-esque couch position, it’s unlikely any content or displays based around this will be breaking into the consumer space anytime soon.
By all indications, 2010 is set to be a flagship year for 3D. There should be plenty of new displays, set-top boxes, glasses and content. Many will be striving to be the first to market, while others will be happy to sit on the sidelines and watch it all develop. We see many parallels between 3D and the development of HD and that combined with the fact that we find the technology very compelling, should make it clear to you that there’s going to be more 3D coverage than you could want here on Engadget HD. So regardless of how this turns out, we want to be here to watch it flourish or perish. Now, of course we aren’t going to rename the site or anything like that — some of you might think we did. Now this doesn’t mean we’re going to let up hitting the HD news, no not at all. We’re confident we are up to the challenge of covering both very comprehensively.
Now wait one second before you start on the whole “I’m not wearing any stupid looking glasses,” because no matter what you say, there are more people paying extra to go 3D movies than ever and the reason is simple; it’s because this isn’t like the crappy 3D you saw during the Super Bowl last year — or that our parents grew up with. No, the 3D that Sony, Panasonic, and others are promising next year is like nothing you’ve seen. We’ve come a long way since the old anaglyph red and blue glasses that come in cereal boxes, so before you knock the new technology before it’s even out, click through and read about the technologies that might bring us a real 3D revolution.
We have two eyes for a reason and while we’ve enjoyed stereo sound since-like-forever, stereoscopic images haven’t quite arrived. At its core, 3D is as simple as using two cameras to capture the data that our eyes would, but it’s the display part that’s proven tricky. Ultimately, the technology has to find a way to present each eye with a different variation of an image, at that point our eyes and brain do the rest.
Circular polarized or active LCD shutter glasses
The one thing that hasn’t changed about 3D is the need for glasses — if you’re holding out for 3D on a big screen without glasses, you’re going to let this generation of 3D pass you by. The technology in the glasses varies by a lot and the main two types these days are circular polarized and active LCD shutter. Both serve the same purpose, to ensure each eye sees a different image, but in much different ways.
LCD shutter glasses
So in comes the LCD shutter glasses — the technology itself has actually been around for some time, in fact there were eight Sega Master Systems games that worked with shutter glasses dating back to the 80’s. But the technology was limited by the display technology of that era which could only show 480i at 30 frames per second, which worked out to about 15 FPS per eye in 3D — so yeah, the flickering could make you sick.
It’s not all good though, besides the cost of the glasses and the added emitter in the TV, some say that there is added flickering, and with the shutters closing in front of your eyes, the image is dimmed a bit. Both Sony and Panasonic claim these are no longer issues in thanks to the super fast refresh rates and brightness available on the latest HDTVs.
Yes, you read that right, all four of these tech giants are pushing the same home 3D display technology. While Samsung and Mitsubishi have been demoing its DLP HDTVs with shutter glasses for-like-ever, both Sony and Panasonic have been showing LCD and Plasma (respectively) HDTVs that can display 3D HD at CES, CEDIA and other shows. In fact Sony and Panasonic promise to release the first consumer 3D capable displays next year. That last part is an important one, so listen up: both will offer HDTVs next year that will work just like any other HDTV today, but will also work with 3D. So not only are the HDTVs going to be fully backwards compatible, but supposedly the new sets won’t cost much more than a normal HDTV. In fact Panasonic believes that in the next few years most of its HDTVs will be 3D ready.
We know what you’re thinking, you just bought a new HDTV and you want to know why it can’t handle 3D. Even if it was possible to add an IR emitter to keep the shutter glasses in sync, the experience at 30 FPS per eye wouldn’t be as enjoyable. And just like when the first 1080p HDTVs hit the shelves without the ability to actually accept 1080p input, the current crop of 120hz HDTVs can’t actually display 120 frames per second — only show each frame of a 60 fps signal, twice.
Of course, 3D-capable displays don’t do much without 3D content, and the good news is that most of the infrastructure needed for 3D in the home is already here thanks to HD. With the new 1.4 spec, HDMI has been updated to accomdate 3D and the first source is almost guaranteed to be Blu-ray. In fact as we speak the BDA is working on standardizing the storage of 3D movies on a Blu-ray Disc. It actually isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds, because what is essentially needed is to up the spec from 1080p at 30 FPS to 1080p at 120 FPS. In fact a 50GB Blu-ray Disc has more than ample capacity to handle a 3D HD movie thanks to the wonders of video compression where only the difference of each frame is stored. So 3D movies only require about 50 percent more space, and the one thing about the new 3D Blu-ray standard that has been determined, is that every 3D Blu-ray Disc will include a 2D version of the movie.
But not everyone can see 3D
When we say that 3D isn’t for everyone, we mean it. In fact it is estimated that 4 percent of us are actually physically incapable of seeing 3D no matter what the display technology. And even worse, according to the College of Optometrists in Vision Development, “Research has shown that up to 56 percent of those 18 to 38 years of age have one or more problems with binocular vision and therefore could have difficulty seeing 3D.” So if you are one of these affected, it might be time to see an opthamologist and get screened for amblyopia. And if you happen to be blind in one eye you can still watch 3D, but it’ll just look normal to you — assuming of course you have the glasses on.
Where we go from here
One thing we weren’t able to learn in our quest for 3D knowledge was how compatible these different technologies are. Essentially we assume that the functional compatibility between the two main 3D display technologies described above are like the differences between LCD and Plasma — in other words, they both connect to the same HD set-top-box and Blu-ray player — but until the BDA announces the final details of the 3D specification there isn’t really any way to know for sure. But it seems that if Blu-ray was compatible with both circular polarized and LCD shutter glasses, then certainly whatever broadcast standard or game console announced down the road would also work with both.
Like it or not, 3D is coming and just like HD before it, there will be plenty of technology pundits predicting its demise. The problem right now is very few have had the chance to check out the technology and if you have been lucky enough to see it, it is hard to convey how cool it is to others. On top of this, 3D has a long road ahead because most people think they have seen it because they’ve tried the anaglyph glasses during a Super Bowl Commercial. The other big hurdle is the whole stupid looking glasses argument — which doesn’t make that much sense since you’ll be wearing them in the privacy of your own home. Now we know that the same technology lovers who read Engadget would never hate on any new technology without experiencing it first hand, but tell your friends and family that something new is coming, and no it isn’t like anything else they’ve seen.
The new PDP and glasses evolved from Panasonic’s world-first Full HD 3D Plasma Home Theater System1 that was developed in 2008 and comprised of a 103-inch PDP and a Blu-ray Disc player. The prototype PDP has a 50-inch screen, which is expected to become the most popular size for home theaters.
This 50-inch PDP uses Panasonic’s newly-developed high-speed 3D drive technology that enables rapid illumination of pixels while maintaining brightness. The panel also incorporates a crosstalk reduction technology allowing for minimizing double-image (ghosting) that occurs when left- and right-eye images are alternately displayed. PDPs have excellent video response with full moving picture resolution2. The new panel offers even improved performance, achieving clear, high-quality and high-resolution images in 3D. The high-precision active shutter glasses incorporate Panasonic’s technology that precisely controls the active shutters with the left- and right-eye images shown on the PDP.
All these technologies work in tandem with each other to create Full HD 3D images that deliver an immersive, movie-theater-like experience in which the viewers can feel as if they were part of the scene. They represent Panasonic’s concept of 3D products: “Bringing the movie theater experience into the living rooms.”
Panasonic has been working to develop its original Full HD 3D technology3 to create synergy between PDPs, which excel in moving picture resolution and color reproduction, and Blu-ray Disc players, which are able to faithfully reproduce high quality Hollywood 3D movies. Panasonic continues to work on developing 3D products to allow its customers to enjoy the immersive 3D world in their living rooms, targeting to launch the products in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. in 2010. (Subject to approval of the 3D Expanded Standard.)
Features of Panasonic’s Full HD 3D System
Panasonic’s full HD 3D system uses the full HD x 2 frame sequential method and takes full advantage of the unique properties of the most advanced PDP device such as high-speed illumination and color reproduction to create immersive, true-to-life and high-quality full HD 3D images.
The 3D experience occurs because the left and right eyes recognize different images. In September last year, Panasonic developed the Full HD 3D Plasma Home Theater System, comprised of Blu-ray Discs onto which 3D video consisting of left- and right-sided 1080p full HD images is recorded, a Blu-ray Disc player to play them back, and a PDP display to show them.
Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) image processing occurs on both the left- and right-sided 3D images in every single process – from recording, playback and display. With a special pair of glasses, the viewer is able to experience 3D images formed with twice the volume of information as regular full HD images, and enjoy them together with high-quality surround sound.
Long-lasting light bulb technology is nothing new — people have been trying to up the lifespan these bad boys for some time. Long-lived light bulbs are generally uber-expensive, too, but we like to keep our eyes on such things. Panasonic’s just unveiled the EVERLED, a line of bulbs set to be launched in Japan at the end of October. Lighter and more efficient than other LEDs on the market, these babies use 85 lumens per watt for a 40W bulb. Though the bulbs are not going to be cheap — about $40 — the company claims they’ll have a lifespan of 19 years, bringing the overall costs down considerably. Still, we’d have to see them last that long to believe it.
With the the big 3D push coming in 2010, I planted my eyes on three types of 3D technologies displayed at CEDIA (home theater expo) that you may have in your next TV…and passed some judgments without pulling any punches.
It should be noted, all designs require glasses.
Panasonic’s 3D Plasma Concept
The Tech: Plasma with Active Shutter (alternating left eye, right eye progressive frames)
As a baseline reference to get our bearings, I took yet another look at Panasonic’s 103-inch plasma display that we’ve seen twice before. My original impressions stand. It’s decent—and definitely the best technology of the three that we saw at CEDIA. Why? There’s virtually no flicker in the image because of plasma’s instantaneous response times/ability to push legitimate high frame rates. Plus, it probably helps that we’re talking about a 103-inch display (that has its own trailer). The bigger a 3D display, the better the illusion. But glasses aside, it’s not what I’d deem a perfect experience. You see ghosting around some objects. And…OK, I still can’t ignore the damned glasses. It creates an inherent distance from the image inducing an unintentionally ephemeral viewing experience.
Sony’s LCD Concept
The Tech: 240Hz LCD with Active Shutter (alternating left eye, right eye progressive frames)
Even Panasonic will tell you that 240Hz is the baseline speed needed for an LCD to pull off 3D. But you know what? 240Hz isn’t enough. Watching Pixar’s Up, the color and sharpness are both great, but there’s an absurd level of flicker that’s nominally better than on old timey crank projector. And on this normal-sized LCD, it’s incredibly obvious when 3D objects break the illusion by reaching the TV’s frame. Granted, we’re not talking about a final product here, but the specs seem pretty much identical to what consumers can expect to see in the high-end display market next year.
JVC’s GD-463D10 LCD
The Tech: Polarized filter (two images are interlaced on the screen, each eye sees half the data, glasses don’t need power)
Of the three technologies here, JVC’s is the only final product that’s actually available now. And it costs $9,153. It’s also easily the worst of the three—completely unwatchable, in fact. The interlaced 3D means that the resolution takes a huge hit. But it’s worse than just a 1080i picture. Your brain can almost make out these lines. I could say more about the tech, but I honestly couldn’t stand to look at the screen for more than 10 seconds at once. Oh, and the kicker? For nine thousand bucks, you still only get two pairs of the cheap, polarized glasses. Sorry kids, Mommy and Daddy are watching TV tonight.
There’s no doubt that some home theater enthusiasts will go out and plop down $5k or more on a commercially available 3D display when they enter the TV lines of major manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic in 2010. But I’m hoping, really hoping, that the public can resist the gimmick until the technology is perfected. To me, that means when we don’t need to deal with these silly glasses at all. But for whatever it’s worth, plasma is definitely looking like the clear front runner in execution.
The big theme that stood out for me last week at IFA was the idea of 3D driving sales of new TVs. Both Sony and Panasonic made strong plays for 3D at their press conferences, although Sony did a much better job, giving the audience 3D glasses and showing the trailer for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” along with footage of FIFA Soccer and Gran Turismo running on the PS3 — the cockpit view in GT was particularly impressive. Panasonic’s presentation was a little odder, with the audience being asked to “imagine” what 3D would look like during a slideshow of still images of various events like boxing matches. It was kind of like introducing color TV by showing off a black and white screen and asking the audience to imagine it in color.
I understand the need to drive new sales of TV sets and find some sort of purchase driver. Let’s face it. Screens have gotten large enough, perhaps even too large — if I offered you a 150-inch TV, where would you put it? Resolutions have maxed out and it’s hard to make sets much thinner. OLED displays could be a great purchase driver but are a few years off. So something new needs to drive the market. I’m just not convinced that 3D will really help move things forward.
Second, you need deep content support. At the moment, there’s far more content available on good old HD than there will be in either 3D format and that’s not going to change very fast. Unless you’re a really big fan of a particular title that’s available in 3D, you’re likely to sit this out for a while.
The best content in 3D just doesn’t offer that much more relative to standard HD, especially on smaller screens
Third, you need a clear and visible consumer value proposition. CDs and DVDs both offered obvious value propositions to consumers. There was a noticeable difference in the experience that was easily grasped, and both were marked by moving from an analog tape format to optical disk, which was more reliable and offered novel features such as random access to content. What’s more, both offered clear quality improvements over what had come before — except to my six friends who still swear by their vinyl LPs and tube amps [and your editor! -- ed.], the upgrade in quality was far more than just noticeable. But when I look at the best content on 3D it just doesn’t offer that much more relative to standard HD, especially on smaller screens in regular homes. On top of that, 3D in movie theaters is still mostly a gimmick, and the content that we’ve seen to date doesn’t quite have a compelling feel to it.
With cheap HDTVs and plenty of HD content, the savvy consumer who holds off on a 3D purchase is clearly going to be the winner in 2010 — and consumers who’ve already invested in HD screens over the last few years are not likely to upgrade. In the long run, there may be no winner. The last time two formats fought a battle like this over incremental quality was in the audio arena, when it was SACD against DVD-Audio, and both sides lost to the convenience of less-than-CD-quality MP3s and the iPod. In this case, while we wait for large OLED screens to come to market, these efforts in 3D may just fall flat.