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CES in 3D… Just the Facts

If you read virtually any report in the general consumer press about 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show you would think that 3D television was 100-percent ready for prime time and everyone can expect it in their home any day now. Nice thought, but while all the 3D demos at CES did answer many questions about

If you read virtually any report in the general consumer press about 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show you would think that 3D television was 100-percent ready for prime time and everyone can expect it in their home any day now. Nice thought, but while all the 3D demos at CES did answer many questions about where 3D is going, there were many more questions left unanswered.

The differences in 3D display technologies will mean that the glasses used for each brand of display will likely be different.

For those of us in the business of installing and supporting complex residential entertainment systems that simply won’t do. It’s a fair guess that all of the news will raise questions in the minds of your clients and prospects that you will want to be able to answer. My goal is to give you the ability to answer where you can, and to be honest about what is still an unknown.

When and How Much?

When it comes to flat-panel and projections displays, the answers to “when?” and “how much?” are “soon” and “don’t know.” Virtually all of the major suppliers showed flat-panel 3D displays using both LCD and plasma, and the general expectation for delivery is anywhere from “late spring” to “mid-year” to “some time this year or early next.” Are you looking to deliver a flat-panel 3D display for a hard delivery date? That wouldn’t be a good idea at this time. As to pricing, that, too, is somewhat of an unknown. Expect a premium for 3D over a 2D set, but the exact amounts will likely remain a mystery until the manufacturers hold their line shows in the spring.

If the “when” and “how much” is applied to sources of 3D program material, the answers are about the same as for the displays. ESPN will launch a 3D network in time for the World Cup in June, but there is no word at this time as to how your clients would receive it. DirecTV also will launch 3D programming in June with a trio of 3D networks of their own, but what the price premium will be for them or for any 3D pay-per-view programming is still unknown. Sony, Discovery Networks, and IMAX will offer a 3D network late this year or early next with a wide range of content, but exactly how it will be delivered is still an open question. Pricing is also TBD.

Cable is a Perfect Pipe

Given the past history of the early delivery of HD programming from ESPN and Discovery it would seem that cable is a perfect pipe, but work is still underway to see exactly what it will take to send a 3D signal through the existing cable infrastructure. Will delivery be possible through a cable set-top box, a TV with a cableCARD, or even direct to a display’s tuner via Clear QAM, or will a software update or hardware replacement be required? That’s an unknown at this time. There’s also nothing to report at this time about Dish, FiOS, and U-Verse 3D plans.

Clearly, if one program distribution pipe throws its hat in the 3D ring then the others will follow. Timing and cost, however, are unpredictable. Particularly with cable, it is worth remembering that it took quite some time for many systems to make the needed system upgrades to handle HD. Expect the same for 3D.

Then There’s Broadcast

At this time, no firm standard has been agreed to for over-the-air transmission of 3D broadcasting. We will likely need to see some action from the ATSC, and the FCC will also want to give its blessing to a standard. That hasn’t happened yet, so in the short term we will have to wait, and then likely wait again for an expected round of external set-tops or for manufacturers to have access to the components needed to tune, recognize, and decode 3D transmissions. The cost for this will also factor into what the premium will be for that “3D On Board” video display, if it is to be compatible with over-the-air 3D.

Packaged Media in 3D

The companies behind Blu-ray have agreed to a standard for how 3D will be recorded on discs, but no one has said what, if anything, this will add to costs.

Sony says that all PS3 consoles will be upgradeable to handle both 3D movies and 3D games, but the timing has not been revealed. It is unlikely, though perhaps possible, that some other current 3D models will be upgradeable, but no clear answers are available there, either. That would also raise questions not yet fully answered on how products with HDMI 1.3 might handle HDMI, if indeed they can. Three-D is a key feature of the new HDMI 1.4 standard that PS3 gets around due to the unique circuitry in its design, but that may not apply to other products even if an upgrade is possible to the main processing circuitry.

In terms of compatibility, the Blu-ray Disc Association’s standard does provide that new 3D players will accommodate 2D playback to older displays, and that discs with 3D content can (but are not required to) playback a fully compatible 2D image on older non-3D players. That’s one question you can answer positively. Disney and Sony will be among the first studios to offer 3D Blu-ray discs, and once the ball starts rolling you can expect a slow, but steady roll-out from other studios.

Video Games Look the Best

Of all the content demonstrated in 3D at CES, the best seemed to come from 3D video games. With the control of the 3D encoding directly in the hands of the game designers, the results were spectacular, with baseball games looking excellent.

While all the 3D demos at CES, like this one at the Sharp booth, did answer many questions about where 3D is going, there were many more questions left unanswered.
PS3 will put its support behind 3D, and 3D games for the PC are already available. We may have to wait until E3 to see what level of support Xbox 360 will have for 3D, but it would be a surprise if there wasn’t the desire to compete with its HD rival. Wii, on the other hand, might not have the processing power for 3D, and in any case the limitation to 480p video resolution makes it a poor candidate for the technology.

And what will the content be that all of the products and services discussed here will have to deal with? Along with the previously announced sports such as the World Cup matches and movies on Blu-ray, expect concerts, nature programming, and other original material. Beyond that we’ll have to wait for the program listings, but another natural question will be “what about converting existing 2D content to 3D?” In cases where there is sufficient processing to do that, such as in Toshiba’s forthcoming “Cell Processor-based” displays, the set will do that for you. In other cases there will be conversion of incoming material through an external processor box. Finally, just as the studios went through a phase some years ago when black and white movies were converted to color, expect some of that for commercial material. Be warned that results may vary. Foreground objects will be emphasized, and the 3D effect may be good, but it simply can’t be as impressive as the eventual 3D Blu-ray of Avatar.

Dealing with Differing Formats

What will the relationship be between the differing ways set manufacturers implement 3D and how it is encoded for broadcast, satellite, cable or electronic delivery? The best answer at the moment is that while there may be many standards and techniques on both sides of the screen, the likelihood is that we’ll end up with a situation similar to the “Table of 18” for broadcast TV or the ability of A/V receivers and surround processors to handle all the different audio formats including PCM, MP3 and the analog and digital systems from Dolby and DTS.

In these cases, the receiving/decoding/playback system knows how to deal with more than one format, be it 720p, 1080i, or 480p video from a set-top or tuner, or Dolby Digital Plus or DTS-Master Audio from a Blu-ray disc. The device is smart enough to read the metadata information and adjust itself accordingly with little or no intervention from the consumer. In the case of 3D, this should take the form of different left eye/right eye encoding in transmission from that used in the display, with the TV negotiating the differences.

At a practical level, you may have “over/under,” “left/right,” or “frame interleave” encoding in an incoming signal, while a DLP-based 3D display such as a Mitsubishi rear-screen may use “checkerboard” method for display rendition. No problem; let the set do the thinking. You can expect the same idea to be in place for other mixes of incoming signals and displays.

Different Glasses for Different Displays

The differences in display technologies will mean that the glasses used for each brand of display will likely be different. There are not only both passive and “active shutter” glasses, but there are differences within the categories to match the precise nature of the set. This is not only in frame rates or polarization type, but down to more detailed items such as whether the active glasses communicate with the set by IR or RF, and if by RF by which means and frequency.

Put another way, we can say that if you have more than one brand of 3D display in a home installation, you almost certainly will not be able to use the glasses from one set with a different brand of set in another room. What almost all of the major brands are still holding back on is an answer to how many glasses will be included with a set, and what the price will be for additional glasses. In addition, given the brand-specific nature of the glasses, at least at this time, it is probable that any additional glasses will have to be purchased from the manufacturer. Third-party glasses, as nice an idea as that would be in the high-end custom market, are not in the cards at this time.

Feeling a litter larcenous and thinking that if you filch some glasses from the cinema the next time you see a 3D movie you can re-use them in a home theater installation? We don’t recommend that because it’s a criminal activity. But, if the specter of putting your home theater installation expertise to work in the county jail isn’t enough, even though some companies such as RealD will be supplying technology to both theaters and consumer electronics manufacturers, the cinema glasses will probably not work with any of the home 3D systems. Don’t tempt fate for something that simply isn’t worth it. (On the other hand, if you are installing theater-grade RealD systems, then you can purchase 3D glasses in designer frames from companies such as those offered by San Diego-based MicroVision Optical.)

Don’t take all of this as complete skepticism. The fact is that 3D is on the way, and before the end of 2010 there will absolutely be 3D flat-panel displays and projectors for you to sell and install and programming from video games, satellite services, and on physical media. The hard part, however, comes if you have to start planning now for costs, brands, models, and all the rest of those pesky details. All will become clearer in the months ahead, but for now a dose of caution is in order with all the excitement and added revenue that 3D will bring to our industry.

As always, know the facts, answer questions when you can, and don’t be afraid to say, “The answer to your question simply isn’t available. We’ll get back to you as soon as (the cost/time/spec/size or whatever) data is available to us.”