Television begins a push into the 3rd dimension

[From The New York Times ]


Television Begins a Push Into the 3rd Dimension

Published: January 5, 2010

Ralph Kramden can finally buy a television.

It was more than half a century ago, in a 1955 episode of “The Honeymooners,” that Kramden, the parsimonious bus driver played by Jackie Gleason, told his wife, Alice, that he had not yet bought a new television because “I’m waiting for 3-D.”

The wait will soon be over. A full-fledged 3-D television turf war is brewing in the United States, as manufacturers unveil sets capable of 3-D and cable programmers rush to create new channels for them.

Many people are skeptical that consumers will suddenly pull their LCD and plasma televisions off the wall. Beginning at around $2,000, the 3-D sets will, at first, cost more than even the current crop of high-end flat-screens, and buyers will need special glasses — techie goggles, really — to watch in 3-D.

But programmers and technology companies are betting that consumers are almost ready to fall in love with television in the third dimension. In part, it could be the “Avatar” effect: with 3-D films gaining traction at the box office — James Cameron’s “Avatar” surpassed the staggering $1 billion mark last weekend — companies are now determined to bring an equivalent experience to the living room.

Anticipating this coming wave, ESPN said Tuesday that it would show World Cup soccer matches and N.B.A. games in 3-D on a new network starting in June, and Discovery, Imax and Sony said they would jointly create a 3-D entertainment channel next year. The satellite service DirecTV is expected to announce its own 3-D channels at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where every major television manufacturer is planning to announce 3-D televisions and compatible Blu-ray DVD players on Wednesday.

“The stars are aligning to make 2010 the launch year of 3-D,” said John Taylor, a vice president for LG Electronics USA. “It’s still just in its infancy, but when there is a sufficient amount of content available — and lots of people are working on this — there will be a true tipping point for consumers.”

At that point, the question becomes whether consumers — many of whom have only recently upgraded to costly new high-definition sets — will want to watch in three dimensions enough to pay for the privilege. “I think 90 percent of the males in this country would be dying to watch the Super Bowl and be immersed in it,” said Riddhi Patel, an analyst at the research firm iSuppli.

But will the experience translate to other entertainment? Ms. Patel said, “You don’t necessarily want the ladies of ‘The View’ sitting around you when you watch them.”

For most consumers, 3-D is still far in the distance. With the announcement this week, the media companies are trying to place themselves at the forefront of an emerging technology, much as they did for HDTV a decade ago.

It took high-definition television about a decade to catch on — to the point where it has become part of the entertainment mainstream, with an adequate stock of HD programming and the sets now cheap enough to entice middle-class buyers. Analysts expect 3-D television to go through the same curve, initially attracting first adopters for whom price is little or no object and gradually moving out to other affluent and then middle-class homes as sets become cheaper and programmers create enough 3-D fare.

Or, of course, the technology could be a total flop.

For decades 3-D was a gimmick for B-movies and occasionally on television (in bad quality with flimsy paper glasses), but newer technology has largely erased those memories. Peter M. Fannon, a vice president at Panasonic, called the new sets “totally different than what one had seen over the last 20 to 30 years.”

In 3-D, television makers see an opportunity to persuade households that have already bought HDTVs to return to the electronics store. Though television sales jumped 17 percent in 2009, the industry needs new innovations to keep the cash register ringing.

“Three-D is an effort by the industry to come up with something that will motivate consumers to trade up,” said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner Research.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief of DreamWorks Animation, said producers were preparing “an enormous surge in 3-D content, with images that are truly beautiful on these new monitors.”

Leading the charge to television, the pioneering sports network ESPN said it would show at least 85 live events on a 3-D channel starting in June. “The sports genre is probably the best suited to exploit this technology,” said Sean Bratches, an executive vice president at ESPN. The company has held preliminary talks with Comcast and other operators about gaining distribution; the 3-D channel could come at an added cost to subscribers. It will go dark when not showing live events.

The joint venture among Discovery Communications, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Imax Corporation will be a full-time channel featuring natural history, movies, sports, music and other programming.

New 3-D televisions, like the 3-D screens in theaters, work by dividing picture images into two sets, one for each eye. A viewer must wear special glasses, so each eye captures a different image, creating the illusion of depth. Filming entails two connected cameras, one for the left-eye image and the other for the right.

Manufacturers have developed two technologies for 3-D glasses in the home. In so-called polarized glasses, which can cost under a dollar, each lens blocks a set of images transmitted in certain types of light. “Active” glasses, which are better suited for LCD screens in particular, have battery-powered shutters that open and close rapidly, so each eye sees different views of each frame. These glasses can cost up to $100, but television makers are expected to package at least two pairs with each monitor.

On the horizon is technology that allows people to watch 3-D without glasses, but that has severe limitations, like forcing viewers to sit at a certain distance.

Mike Vorhaus, the managing director of new media for Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting firm, said 3-D was many years away from widespread adoption. For now, he said, it is “one more appetizer” for consumers who “already have a lot to digest.”

Indeed, a number of hurdles remain, including a lack of production equipment and dueling 3-D transmission standards. But backers like David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications, say 3-D is bound to gain attention because consumers and producers are always striving for what looks “closest to real life.”

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