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Watching TV in 3D
By Nick Burklow

As of late, you might have noticed a large push toward the third dimension. If you are to believe the major manufacturers of video equipment, 3D is the new hotness, and you had better be upgrading soon.

Is 3DTV really worth the upgrade, though? How does that new-fangled technology work anyway? Will I need glasses? Read on to find out.

For, oh I don't know, just about ever, we have had stereo audio. 3DTV is like that, only for our eyes. The basic principle of 3D is to capture a stereoscopic image using a camera with two lenses. The lenses are spaced out about the same as the distance between your pupils. It turns out that capturing the image is the easy part. Displaying it so that your brain sees it as a 3D image is a little more complicated.

To properly view 3D content, you need a TV set that supports it, glasses (more on this later), something to provide the content (Blu-ray player, cable box, PlayStation 3 etc.) and an IR emitter.

There are several ways to both capture and display 3D content. I am only going to focus on the use of LCD shutter glasses, as this is the type you will most likely end up with in your living room. If you want the entire lowdown on how all kinds of 3D technology work, I suggest reading the Wikipedia article about 3D television.

The technology behind 3D glasses has evolved greatly since the old days of those red-and-blue anaglyph glasses. LCD shutter glasses are what make seeing modern 3D possible. These glasses work by blacking out one eye at a time, very quickly, in order to show each eye a different high-definition image. In order to keep in sync with the TV, an IR emitter is used to send a signal to the glasses. Also, the glasses need power. Some obtain this from a watch-style battery, while others use recharges.

So far, the biggest problem with this style of glasses is that there is no standard between manufacturers, meaning they are not interchangeable. Other drawbacks include the fact that they dim the image you are watching, and some say they notice flickering. Additionally, they add cost to your initial set-up, as they are usually not included with the purchase of the TV set.

In addressing the flickering and dimming issues, both Sony and Panasonic say they have these issues resolved thanks to the incredibly fast refresh rates and added brightness of newer TVs.

You may find yourself asking, "Will my current HDTV work with 3D content?" The short answer is no, it will not.

The reasoning is as follows. If you were able to add the IR emitter and pony up the dough for LCD shutter glasses, and get yourself a new Blu-ray player, you still won't get a 3D image because of your TV's slower refresh rate. Current 1080p-capable HDTVs are simply unable to pump out the required frame rates needed to show each eye a different image and maintain a smooth picture. You need a 3D-ready set that is able to show you 120 frames per second, as opposed to the old standard of 60 frames a second.

The cost of upgrading isn't as bad as one might think. The new TV sets are only marginally more expensive than current models. Best Buy will gladly sell you a 3D-ready TV starting at $1,799.

As mentioned above, you will need a source for that 3D content as well. New 3D-capable devices use the HDMI 1.4a standard. While some older HDMI 1.3 devices will put out a useable 3D signal, it's best to play this one safe and use devices on the 1.4a standard. If you don't know what that is, just ask the salesperson. They should be able to tell you which standard the device you are looking at uses.

To start with, most early adopters are going to end up watching their mind-blowing 3D content on a Blu-ray disc. However, updates to cable companies' set-top boxes are allowing for 3D content in the near future, most of which will consist of sports and movies at first. The popular PlayStation 3 has 3D gaming in the pipeline, and it's rumored that the Xbox 360 will have real 3D gaming as well.

I have a fair warning for all you would-be 3D consumers out there: Not everyone can see 3D stereoscopic images. Think of it as being deaf in one eye. It is estimated that 4 percent of the population is physically unable to process 3D imagery. To find out if you fall into that category, you will want to see an ophthalmologist to be tested for amblyopia. If you happen to be blind in one eye, you will still be able to view 3D content provided you are using the necessary glasses. It will, however, look like normal 2D imagery to you.

3DTV is on the way in. Is this quest for the third dimension driven by the consumer's need for innovation? Are the electronics giants looking for a new way to convince consumers to purchase a new TV? Or is this just the natural evolution of video content? Time will tell.

My opinion is that 3DTV is cool but gimmicky. If I had a 3DTV, I would take relief in the fact that I can still watch my "old" 2D content without putting on a large pair of glasses (over my current ones). On those special occasions when a new show, movie or event is in 3D, I can break out the glasses and watch the latest and greatest at work.

Is it worth it to upgrade? For me, it's not worth it just yet. The lack of standardization and quickly evolving technologies make me want to hold off and see where things end up.


Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )

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