There was some big 3D news at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
ESPN announced a 3D network, and DirecTV will be offering three 3D channels, all to launch in June. Sony, IMAX and Discovery Communications announced a 24-hour 3D channel to launch in 2011.
Standards are beginning to get ironed out, too. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) is working on programming standards for 3D. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is working on formats at the consumer-premise end of the chain. And CableLabs has expanded its 3D testing.
"There are no fundamental technical problems in distributing end-to-end," said Ajay Luthra, senior director in the advanced technology group at Motorola.
There’s also consumer interest. Forty-six percent of respondents to a December 2009 Quixel Research poll said they want to receive 3D content via their cable or satellite provider, and almost one-third would be interested in changing their content provider to receive 3D content.
"Autosteroscopic is not going to happen very soon, if ever." — Ajay Luthra, Motorola
Nausea, glasses, 3D TV sets
At the top of the list of practical problems is nausea. A technology that literally can cause its customers to vomit has some kinks to be worked out.
While autostereoscopic 3D, which doesn’t require glasses, is often blamed for dizziness, headaches and nausea, regular stereoscopic 3D can give some people these symptoms, as well.
One way to minimize the risk of making people nauseous is to control their seating position. In cinemas, patrons sit in fixed seats. But at home, they recline on couches and sit at odd angles to the TV.
"The cinema offers the ideal environment for 3D, controlled seating in the optimum viewing position," wrote Ian Trow, director of broadcast solutions for Harmonic, in a paper delivered at IBC 2009.
Even at the theater, some people report headaches and eye-strain. How will this be avoided at home, under less-than-ideal seating conditions?
Then there is the 3D glasses barrier.
The kind of 3D that doesn’t require glasses — again, autostereoscopic — requires that content be shot from multiple angles, rather than just the right eye/left eye two-angle views of regular 3D. And that’s just one of several daunting challenges.
"Autostereoscopic is not going to happen very soon, if ever," said Luthra. "There are lots of problems related to optics."
That said, we’re back to eyeware. "Glasses in the home environment is not thought a viable proposition," wrote Trow. And many would agree. It’s one thing to wear 3D glasses for a special theater event like Avatar, but it’s another to watch a movie at home and walk into the kitchen during a commercial break wearing a big, clunky pair of glasses.
Finally, there’s the cost for 3D equipment. The price of a 3D TV is hovering around $2,000, and each pair of active glasses will set consumers back another $200.
Many people have only recently invested in new HDTV sets. True enough, some manufacturers have been building 3D capability into new HDTVs and consumers just don’t realize it. But in other cases, consumers are unlikely to swap new sets to upgrade to 3D equipment.
It’s certainly understandable that the industries that make money from innovations in video are hopeful that 3D will provide a new revenue stream. And it’s commendable that so much progress has been made in terms of standards, content creation and consumer equipment manufacturing.
But from a practical standpoint, there are some substantive drawbacks to this technology.
Linda Hardesty is associate editor of Communication Technology.