There's a lot of talk in the media about 3D TV at present. It's no doubt partly fuelled by the success of 3D movies such as UP and Avatar, but as 3D TVs aren’t for sale in Australia yet, the discussion is a bit premature.
This month Panasonic invited a number of journalists and reviewers to their offices to view one of its 3D TVs. The viewing was designed to show off the TV to its best advantage and there's no denying it looked good in these conditions. It's also important to note that the 3D TV we were watching was a pre-production model, so things could change by the time it hits the retail stores around the middle of 2010. The demonstration TV was a top-of-the-range (1920 x 1080) 127cm plasma with special processing hardware and software to handle the 3D processing, but you can use it as a normal 2D TV.
Sony also demonstrated some of its 3D LCD TVs this month. The technology that produces 3D on LCD is different to that used for plasma, but you still have to wear special glasses, so from a viewer’s perspective it’s much the same.
I still have a number of reservations about 3D in the lounge room and these demonstrations did little to dispel them. You have to wear special battery-powered glasses to see the 3D effect and they could be uncomfortable over long periods. The Panasonic requires you to be within 'line-of-sight' of the TV, so the glasses can sync with the TV’s pulsing of the image. This isn't a major problem, except that in our demonstration there was just a slight delay sometimes if you turned away from the screen. This resulted in a very brief flicker as the glasses realigned themselves. Another problem with the glasses is cost. Panasonic wouldn’t put a price on theirs and suggested only one or two pairs would be supplied with the TV, so having friends over to watch a movie could be an expensive business. Not to mention what a small group of five-year-olds could do with them.
The Sony glasses look similar, but in the demonstration, just moving off axis or rotating your head – as you would if you were lying on your side – resulted in a noticeable loss of definition and 3D effect.
In a recent launch of Samsung 3D TVs, Samsung have put a price of US$149 per pair for its 3D glasses.
The 3D image on both the Panasonic and Sony screens appears blurry and the colours are out of alignment when viewed without the special glasses, but 2D images are just as crisp as you'd expect from a TV of this specification. With the glasses the Panasonic 3D illusion is convincing in its depth, and the detail appeared to be just as good as with a 2D image in the short demonstration. The Sony was less convincing and seemed a bit jittery, but in both cases we're looking at pre-production models and some glitches may be sorted out by the time these products hit the shelves in June or July.
3D TV is an illusion. We see depth because our eyes are a small distance apart and our brain combines the images from each eye. 3D TV uses this to trick us into seeing depth by pulsing images taken from slightly different positions into each eye in a sequence so fast that our brains can't process the flicker, but can see the image.
However, in the real world our brain also maintains some control over where we focus on a scene. The bits we aren't looking at are out of focus and we can deal with complicated scenes by allowing our eyes to rove around focussing on those parts of the scene that are of interest to us. As a consequence of the latter, we can build a picture of the scene in our mind as it would appear if we could see most of it in focus at the same time. What is rather odd about 3D TV is that the scenes are often either deliberately out of focus in some areas, or totally in focus. Either way our ability to control the focus is taken away. I found this a little disturbing at times and quite tiring after a while.
The prospect of watching a lot of 3D really doesn't excite me that much, but the occasional movie could be fun. My friends will have to bring their own glasses, though.