Also fueling the "forget it, it's a fad" argument, the organizers of the Consumer Electronics Show let it be known a couple of months ago that the "big stories" at this January's CES would be Internet-connected TVs and tablet computers, not 3-D.
ESPN WATCH: Why even Bryan Burns, point person for ESPN's pioneering 3-D TV sports channel, started to take "all the adverse commentary, the 'too much hype' business" to heart." Then he arrived at CES, first to discover the Sony booth was all about 3-D, "with the most amazing theater-sized screen" and a "full array of 3-D products ready for the home market." Not just TVs and Blu-ray players, but also laptop computers and digital still and video cameras, even a relatively inexpensive (like $200) 3-D Bloggie boasting a "glasses-free" (auto-stereoscopic) 3-D viewing screen.
Burns started making the rounds of other booths and saw 3-D TVs everywhere, not just from big companies (Panasonic, LG, Toshiba) but also smaller players like RCA (a once massive American brand newly licensed to a Korean TV maker), Hisense and Coby. The latter group hints of major 3-D price drops to come.
"And these companies weren't just doing 3-D on one or three screens," noted Burns. "Some have 16 or 20 models that are 3-D-ready. It'll be a feature across the board and that will seed the market."
Burns also judged Sony and Toshiba technical demonstrations of auto-stereoscopic sets - "naked" 3-D TVs that don't require the wearing of glasses - farther along than he anticipated.
My take? If you think putting on glasses to watch TV is an inconvenience, you probably won't be thrilled by auto-stereoscopic sets that only offer a clear 3-D viewing perspective if you sit in one of three exact spots in front of the screen, within a 40-degree range. And the price tag on a big screen "naked 3-D" display, requiring twice the resolution of today's HDTV screens, will likewise be hard to swallow.
MORE TO SCORE: For its part, ESPN will be turning up the heat by converting its now "event-only" 3-D channel to a 24/7 operation on Feb. 14. ESPN 3D will capture/share about 100 new live events this year. (Next up - Friday night's NBA game with Los Angeles at Denver at 10:30 p.m.; then the Winter X Games, live and in your face starting Jan. 27 with live events at noon and 9 p.m.)
"We're making great progress, reinventing how we shoot in 3-D, with a Skycam, with wireless cameras and robotics, with using one set of cameras to shoot in both 2-D and 3-D. The day after Thanksgiving, we did the Old Spice Basketball Classic from Orlando, and we put up 2-D and 3-D demos side-by-side at the office. On the 3-D version, for the first time ever I got to really see a reach-around foul, something I'd never seen in 2-D. When we started with high definition, I thought 'sports TV couldn't get any better.' But we can cover things, tell the story in a different way in 3-D and it's pretty darned cool."
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASSES: Another big booster I observed at this CES was the new trend to "passive" 3-D TV displays that layer extra filters on the screen and use inexpensive polarizing lens glasses, like the ones you now get at movie theaters.
At 3-D's CES coming-out-party a year ago, first tier brands had all introduced sets that alternately deliver left- and right-eye full frame images to the viewer, decoded with expensive ($125 a pair) active shutter glasses. Manufacturers then declared this was the best and only means for delivering a "FULL HD 3-D" presentation from specially-encoded Blu-ray discs.
But at the 2011 CES, led by LG, some makers were arguing that the trade-off in picture resolution with passive technology, which delivers both left and right eye images in a single frame, won't be noticed by most viewers. At close range, with 3-D Blu-ray content, I could see black gaps between picture scanning lines on these sets, like in the old days of analog TV. Cable and satellite-delivered 3-D pictures will be further diminished on such polarizing screen 3-D TVs, which Vizio, JVC and Toshiba also will market.
Still, when pressed, backers argue that the trade-off is worth it for the lighter, brighter and much cheaper polarizing lens glasses used with such televisions, making this 3-D variant a natural for sports bars.
On the "Full HD 3-D" front, the biggest news was also with glasses - with ergonomic improvements on the active shutter species. Samsung showed an ultralight model with flex arms that just about float on your nose. These new shutter glasses can be fitted with a prescription lens insert, and neatly store on a wireless charging station. Oh, and these Samsung 3-D glasses now take synchronizing signals from the TV via radio frequency (Bluetooth) rather than infrared light, for improved reception.
Aftermarket maker Xpand introduced a second version of its brand-agnostic shutter glasses called Youniversal that are not only lighter and more comfortable, but adjustable for factors like viewer's age, 3-D intensity preference and the room light level. Xpand also said it would soon be offering "value priced" four-packs of its first-gen glasses, another clue 3-D is getting cheaper.
CONTENT AND MORE CONTENT: Sony reaffirmed the upcoming launch of another new 3-D TV channel, now called 3Net, in partnership with IMAX and Discovery. Sony also will push the cause with more 3-D-ready video games for the PlayStation 3, said chairman Howard Stringer, and 3-D movies like the just opened "Green Hornet." By Bryan Burns' count, there'll be "at least 100 movies available on 3-D Blu-ray by year's end."
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