Coming soon: Journey to the Centre of Your Living Room in 3-D

Next weekend, Jeffrey Katzenberg will appear at an international broadcasting conference in Amsterdam to talk about how 3-D is the new hot thing in American cinema, with companies like his DreamWorks Animation SKG and such big directors as Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron making groundbreaking films utilizing new digital projection technologies.

To emphasize the point, Mr. Katzenberg will appear, via a live satellite feed from Los Angeles, in three crisp dimensions on a big screen, before the group. Thanks to the cheap plastic glasses the attendees will be wearing, you can bet there will be oohing and aahing about how it seems like he is there in the room. (This despite the fact that, in stature and style, Mr. Katzenberg is no Kung Fu Panda.) In doing this, Mr. Katzenberg may be inadvertently offering an early glimpse at a use for the technology that could well turn out to be an even bigger media revolution - live broadcast TV in 3-D. That's right: Journey to the Centre of Your Living Room.

Sure, the idea of sitting around the house wearing special glasses may sound cumbersome (and dorky). And right now there is a handful of 3-D sets for sale in the United States and elsewhere, but no programming to speak of. Plus, it's hard to get jazzed about yet another new format of TV when consumers are still wrapping their heads (and wallets) around high-definition sets, DVD players and TV channels. And how much more 3-D, beyond the odd Imax spectacular, do people really want anyway?

Yet - apologies to the literary gods - seeing is 3-lieving. A few weeks ago, in a converted warehouse in Burbank, Calif., a rig housing two cameras shot a visiting columnist's image and transmitted it onto a flat-screen TV on the other side of the room. Donning polarized glasses, the visitor could see himself virtually leaping out of the television at ... himself. The company hosting the demo, called 3ality Digital LLC, is one of a bunch of players trying to push ahead with what is called stereoscopic broadcasting. Its calling card is that it made the U2 3-D movie that wowed audiences last year. While it is working on other film projects, 3ality Digital is focusing on the much bigger potential market for live TV.

In fact, demos of live 3-D have been quietly gaining buzz around the TV world, particularly in sport: Last year, for instance, the NBA All-Star game was broadcast in 3-D on a closed-circuit feed. "This is similar to where we were in 2003 with high-def," says Chuck Pagano, executive vice-president of technology at ESPN. "This is a big win for TV in general, because it is jaw-dropping when you see a football or basketball game in 3-D."

Indeed, one thing the first wave of Hollywood 3-D blockbusters has clarified is that 3-D can't make a crummy movie good but it might make a good movie better. But with TV, 3-D is much more of a no-brainer, because it enhances already proven programming. Picture events like the Olympics, or the much-discussed speeches at the U.S. electoral conventions, viewed with the illusory sense of depth and proximity that 3-D creates.

Unsurprisingly, the porn industry is also drooling over the potential for this new format. But as with all newfangled gadgetry, the big question is which standards will prevail, and when: There are already several "3-D ready" displays on the market from the likes of Samsung and JVC, requiring different types of image coding and viewing glasses. These are mainly for commercial purposes and video gaming. However, in Japan, one broadcaster is airing an hour a day in 3-D, and Philips has a 3-D monitor for sale that does not require glasses but is, for now, too pricey for mass rollout. "I think the glasses are a necessary evil for the next few years," says Wendy Aylsworth, a Warner Bros. studio executive who is heading an entertainment industry group's efforts to set technical standards for what is known as "stereoscopic" 3-D. Still, expect more and better 3-D TVs to be the buzz at next January's big consumer electronics show in Las Vegas.

ESPN's Mr. Pagano estimates the first 3-D broadcasts in the U.S. are three years away. But they might be sooner if Hollywood's 3-D craze gathers steam. Last month, Walt Disney's Hannah Montana 3-D concert film featuring teen popstress Miley Cyrus was released on DVD, after a surprisingly strong run in U.S. theatres. But the DVD uses the old-time 3-D format known as anaglyph, which requires those funky glasses with one red and one blue plastic lens. That format is what works on current TVs - sort of: Unlike the crisp stereoscopic images seen on the big-screen version - or Mr. Katzenberg's speech - the colours through anaglyph are pretty brutal.

Similarly, Warner (which, like Fortune, my employer, is owned by Time Warner) is planning to release its recent 3-D film Journey to the Center of the Earth in DVD, but also using anaglyph. That's the 3-D equivalent of releasing a colour movie in black-and-white for home viewing. And for 3-D aficionados, that won't do for very long.

By Richard Siklos, Fortune Magazine