3D TV: Sure Win or Long Shot?

If a panel at a display conference is any indication, the possibility of 3D entertainment in the home is a foregone conclusion, at least if you believe Japan consumer electronics giants such as Sony and Panasonic. More accurately, 3D is a matter of survival for these companies, whose two-dimensional sales continue to decline.

At FPD International 2009, top executives promoting Blu-ray systems—from Panasonic and Sony, respectively—made clear that they are ready for a 2010 launch of full HD 3D-equipped Blu-ray players and matching 3D TV sets. The new 3D Blu-ray format, whose standardization is scheduled to finish at the end of this year, will use two 1920 x 1080p full HD resolution frames, one for the right eye and another for the left eye. 3D disks will maintain backward compatibility with 2D Blu-ray players, so that new disks can be played back in 2D on current Blu-ray hardware.

While there will be a single standard for 3D Blu-ray disks and players, the market is likely to see fragmented 3D display technologies on new 3D TV sets.

Different Formats
To further complicate matters, broadcasters who want to reach mass audiences for the minimum investment in infrastructure, hope to offer 3D programs in a format different from the 120Hz, full-HD frame sequential method adopted by the Blu-ray Disc Association, according to Ikuo Matsumoto, executive director at Fujiwara-Rothchild, a 3D market research firm based in Tokyo.

Some satellite operators and pay TV companies plan to use a so-called "half-HD" format, which crams two pictures—left eye and right eye—in one frame. There are various "half-HD" methods, because the information going to each eye can be arranged in "line by line," "top and bottom," side by side" or "checkerboard sampling" configurations.

Speculation abounds in Japan over whether Blu-Ray promoters, who are also leading large-screen TV manufacturers, are willing to offer multi-format 3D TV sets. But so far, they're all mum on their 3D TV strategies.

However, Masayuki Kozuka, general manager of the storage devices business strategy office at Panasonic Corp., hinted that Panasonic 3D TV will be adapted to broadcast by allowing "side by side" signals. Such signals will then convert to frame-sequential by using special circuitry inside TV sets, he said. Akira Shimazu, general manager of BD strategy at Sony Corp., agreed that Sony has similar strategies. It is not clear what other 3D technologies will be incorporated into these companies' 3D sets, however. But one thing is clear: the adoption of Xpol stereoscopic 3D technology is "unlikely," indicated Kozuka.

Xpol 3D, developed by Arisawa Manufacturing Co., is an optical device based on a micro-polarizer. By bonding it to a flat-panel display, such as LCD, users can view flicker-free 3D stereoscopic content simply by wearing cheaper polarizer glasses, claimed the Japanese company. Kozuka, however, complained that the Xpol filter on 3D TV could limit viewing angles for consumers.

Market researcher Matsumoto stressed that a multi-format 3D TV is "ideal" for broader 3D market adoption, but integration of a host of new 3D technologies could result in a cost-prohibitive product, because of the variety of intellectual property involved.

Reasons for 3D Push
Participants in the panel stressed several key reasons why they must seize the moment now to push 3D into the home.

First, it's all about digital.

While acknowledging consumers' lukewarm reaction to the 3D cinema experience in the past, Panasonic's Kozuka made it clear that "all digital 3D technologies today make a world of difference from analog 3D experiences we used to know." He added that all-digital 3D offers less crosstalk and dramatically improves the sense of dimension.

Second, Hollywood studios' enthusiasm for 3D is building at full speed right now.

There will be at least 4,000 digital cinema theaters worldwide by the end of this year. Hollywood has discovered that profitability per theater triples for 3D movies, compared to 2D.

"We want to ride the momentum, not lose it," said Sony's Shimazu.

Third, Blu-ray by itself has done nothing for Hollywood studios' home video business.

Home video business revenue has been on a slight downward curve over the last few years, acknowledged Panasonic's Kozuka. In order to reverse this trend, "We need to give consumers a good, visible reason to buy Blu-ray," he said. That, in the eyes of Blu-ray promoters, is 3D. "We've offered interactive Blu-ray based on Java. We also connected Blu-ray to the Internet," said Kozuka. "But we think 3D is the biggest differentiator—clear to everyone."

Fourth, 3D, if successful, will create whole new opportunities for a range of product lines including both professional and consumer electronics devices.

Sony's Shimazu claimed that Sony is ready to go 3D not only with its game console PlayStation 3 but also its Vaio PCs. Naturally, new 3D TV sets will also play a key role in differentiating their hardware, he added. Both Sony and Matsushita stand to gain by developing professional 3D video cameras and other 3D related services for movie studios and TV production houses.

Possible Roadblocks
While 3D promoters remained optimistic, the Q&A session at the panel offered a long list of reasons why 3D is still a long shot, or could once again, prove a fad that fizzles in the end.

First problem: subtitles on 3D content.

How to deal with subtitles, or more importantly closed caption information which is mandatory in the United States, on a 3D TV remains an unresolved issue. One can put a subtitle on a 3D film, but when an image jumps off the screen, the subtitle follows. "It all depends on depth of a screen for now, we don't have a definitive solution," acknowledged Panasonic's Kozuka.

Second, sports and live events broadcast in 3D.

No videographers and producers have enough experience with shooting live events in 3D. In a live 3D baseball game, for example, cameras would have to be relocated from long-familiar 2D vantage points in order to follow the flight of a 95-mph fastball from pitcher to batter, and again from batter to wherever the ball lands. In a football game, a long pass might be impossible to capture in a single panning shot with one 3D camera. But if a camera switch is necessary, the whole play could be lost in transition.

Third, animation in 3D is fine, but what about others?

So far, Hollywood studios have been able to demonstrate the effective use of 3D in animation films. "But animation is after all depicting a fantasy world," said Reiji Asakura, an author and audio/video critic in Japan, who moderated the panel. The real test is in a regular film, shooting the real world. "Even a slight discrepancy shown in 3D will turn the audience off, because we all have a real-life 3D experience," he noted.

Fourth, what about those cockamamie glasses?

Whether using active shutter glasses or polarizer glasses, the question is: "Will consumers be asked to wear them all the time?" asked one of the attendees. The inconvenience factor would be substantial. "Most people today watch TV while doing something else—whether eating supper or reading a newspaper," he pointed out.

Fifth, how much is it?

No vendors have disclosed how much a new 3D Blu-ray player or a 3D TV set will cost—yet. At a time when the global economy remains weak, it's unclear who's ready to jump on the newest gadget, except perhaps for the gadget-happy consumers of Japan.

Sixth, did you say "3D PC?"

In different parts of the world, PCs continue to gain momentum as a primary device for entertainment. Sony says it has a plan for 3D Vaio PCs, but the company offers no details on how to enable a PC with 3D.

Seventh, is 3D safe for your eyes?

The biggest question mark, and a potential deal breaker for 3D, is—no kidding—optical safety. There is not enough evidence to determine whether watching 3D intensely on a game console for hours is harmless. Vendors claim they will be taking precautions and working on guidelines. But the safety issue, if mishandled, could send 3D back to the same drawing board where it died in 1954.

By Junko Yoshida, EE Times Asia