Thursday, January 06, 2011

3D at CES: Better solutions, but more confusion?

Consumers interested in buying 3D HDTVs have had to contend with the limitations of existing sets: They require expensive (typically $100 (U.S.) or more), powered, "active-shutter" glasses that are incompatible from vendor to vendor--for example, Sony's 3D glasses won't work with Samsung's 3D HDTVs, and vice versa. (One company, Xpand, has developed "universal" 3D glasses that work with a variety of manufacturers' sets.) At this week's CES, a number of companies have announced new approaches that might make active-shutter glasses obsolete.

The first innovation is passive 3D glasses. They require no power, and depending on the vendor, will cost between $10 and $20 each. Vizio was the first out of the gate with passive glasses. The company claims that it will work with virtually any modern passive 3D glasses, including the ones given out at movie theaters. The biggest limitation of the Vizio approach is that it results in "half-resolution" 3D images, because the images for both eyes are displayed simultaneously in the same frame. That means that a 1920 x 1080 image becomes 960 x 540.

Next, LG Electronics announced its Cinema 3D technology, which it claims has been certified to be flicker-free by two commercial standards organizations, Intertek and TUV. There's no word yet on whether the LG technology provides a full- or half-resolution image.

Samsung has teamed with RealD, the largest supplier of 3D technology to movie theaters, to offer a 3D system that uses the same passive glasses as theaters. The active switching layer is in the LCD display, not the glasses, and changes the polarization of the light coming through the LCD from the backlight. This enables the system to display a full-resolution image. In 2D mode, the polarization switching system is disabled. Although Samsung is displaying the system at CES, it hasn't announced any ship dates, while both the Vizio and LG Electronics systems should begin shipping in Q1 2011.

Finally, Toshiba is displaying 3D HDTVs that require no glasses whatsoever. The Toshiba system uses passive filters to split the image for each eye, and results in a half-resolution image. In addition, viewing position and angle are critical in order to get the maximum 3D effect. Toshiba plans to ship 3D HDTVs of 40 inches and larger, and is showing 56 and 65 inch prototypes at CES. Bloomberg Business Week reports that the company plans to start shipping sets in April.

This new collection of 3D technologies opens up a number of questions:
  • We know the cost of the passive 3D glasses, but how much will the 3D HDTVs cost? So far, the price of only one of the new sets has been released. How will the prices compare with existing sets that use active 3D glasses?
  • Will the performance of the sets vary depending on the type of passive glasses used? Vizio, for one, claims that its new sets can use passive glasses from just about anyone, including the ones given away at the movies. Samsung and RealD, on the other hand, claim that their system will only work with glasses from RealD.
  • Will consumers be satisfied with "half-resolution" systems? In a crowded Best Buy, Walmart or Costco, where they're most likely to see the sets, will they even be able to tell the difference?
  • How will consumers choose between all these different approaches, or will they wait until manufacturers settle on a standard approach?
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