Your TV Tech Fix: 3DTV 101

I’m willing to bet the vast majority of you have seen a trailer promoting some movie in 3D at your local theater, or have actually seen a recent blockbuster like Avatar or Shrek 4 in 3D.  What you may not know, however, is that 3D is quickly moving from theater to home in a big way, and it’s high time this tech junky brought you up to speed on 3D TV technology and how you can get on board if you so choose.

I think I heard someone ask, “Why now, Matt? 3D TVs have been available for months.”

That’s a great question. Until today, I had little reason to talk about 3DTV. Sure, there are a few sets out there from Samsung and Panasonic, but there’s only a single digital 3D Blu-Ray available, and only a handful of special events have been aired in 3D. Tomorrow the snowball will begin rolling down the hill. Why? Sony’s new 3D televisions will finally become available for order. Now, I don’t think their hardware will be a major factor in 3D adoption (although the XBR LX900 sure does look nice). However, because Sony doesn’t have any 3D capable products in the marketplace, they’ve been holding back on CONTENT – an area where they WILL make a significant impact attracting the masses to 3D. After all, why would you release content that requires a competitors products to enjoy?

Trust me, it’s no coincidence the day their new TVs are available for order they launch the first 3D games on PS3, nor is it a coincidence “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” will be released on Blu-Ray in 3D on June 22nd… the exact release date for their new TVs.

Furthermore, as soon as Sony updates PS3 units to play back 3D Blu-Ray discs (anyone else guessing June 22nd on that one), there will be a lot more 3D capable players in the market, which should be incentive to release movies in 3D. With more movies in 3D on Blu-Ray, more people will buy TVs to view them. With more TVs in the market, we may well see more TV content in 3D. And so on…

So, now is the time. Take out your notebooks and settle in. Today’s class, 3DTV 101,  is now in session.

3D – Glasses, and Formats

Even if you have experienced a 3D feature, you may not know what 3D means or how it works. Simply put, 3D (or Stereoscopy if you want to be all ‘technical’) is any method of adding the illusion of depth to an image. The effect is created by taking advantage of how people perceive depth in the real world. By showing each eye the same image from a slightly different angle (notice how your eyes are spaced out?), the brain resolves the two images into one with the perception of depth.

It works out pretty well in the real world, and even for content creators. You have two cameras in your head at different angles, and content creators can shoot scenes at a similar spacing to get the two images your eyes would normally see. The real trick to 3D cinema or 3DTV, however, is getting those separate images to the individual eyeball they’re destined for when playing it back on a flat, two dimensional screen. You see, you can’t have both eyes view each image if you want to see in 3D.  That means there needs to be some serious screen trickery going on, or an apparatus (aka “3D glasses”) to help get the right information to each eyeball. For now, 3D glasses are currently the way to go for in-home viewing. It’s true that glasses-free 3D technologies exist, but due to several technical limitations will remain relegated to single viewer small screen applications until technology advances further.

When I say “3D Glasses” don’t be frightened off by flashbacks of old-school red and blue colored paper glasses and 50’s B movies. Today’s digital 3D tech is a whole different ballgame, and nothing like the color-keyed 3D tech of yesteryear. Modern 3D systems use a polarized or active shutter system. Polarized systems may enter the home market at some point, but for now are largely in use only in theaters. Active shutter is the primary in-home method right now, which works by blocking each eye in rapid, alternating succession so the correct eye sees the correct image at the correct time (I know, pretty cool right?). The down side is that active shutter glasses aren’t cheap, costing hundreds per pair.

Like anything else, there are also many different digital 3D formats like checkerboarding and frame stacking. Because high refresh rate monitors are becoming the norm, Blu-Ray and gaming will likely gravitate towards a frame stacking method that delivers full resolution 3D images. TV networks may opt for 3D formats that are more bandwidth friendly, but effectively cut the image resolution in half. Don’t worry, even if that’s the case it will still look good. New LCD TVs and Plasmas from Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony should handle all 3D formats. Many Mitsubishi DLP TVs have been 3D ready going back to 2005 , but don’t support the full-res frame stacking method without a converter or firmware upgrade, depending on the model.

What is there to watch?

As I mentioned above, there’s still relatively little to watch [See What to Watch at], but that’s going to change going forward. As of this writing, the only 3D Blu-Ray is “Monsters vs. Aliens,” but even that’s locked up in a special Samsung bundle with active shutter glasses for their TVs. “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” will be the first stand alone title, but I’m sure many more titles will follow by the end of the year. On TV, expect a limited helping of sports and special events for a while. For example, many World Cup games are going to be available in 3D, and ESPN is launching their new 3D channel soon, so there should always be some new sports stuff to watch provided you can get it in your area. Gamers should expect a fair amount of 3D games in the near future, but we won’t know how many for sure until the E3 gaming expo next week [See What to Play at].

Do I take the 3DTV plunge?

In my opinion, now’s not the time to think about replacing a good TV for one that’s 3D capable. But, if you’re already in the market for a new big screen TV (40″ and up) and you don’t want to replace what you buy in the next five years, I’d definitely consider getting something 3D capable. Yes, current 3DTV sets do demand a price premium, but it’s not horrifying since some of them are sold without the expensive glasses bundled in. Meaning you can buy the TV now, and wait for the price of glasses to fall before you buy glasses for the whole family… or at least wait until there’s more to watch. I’d think about getting at least one pair though, that way you can get a 3D thrill or two in the meantime.

Next Week: Your 3DTV Questions Answered! – Post your 3DTV related questions below or e-mail them to and I’ll tackle them in next week’s entry. Don’t be shy, bring them on!

Satisfy your inner geek while fueling your TV addiction… TV Tech Fix is a column by Matt Whitlock, editor of the Consumer Electronics Community (plus several other gadget-focused community websites, including, and lover of both technology and TV. In this column, he’ll cover a wide variety of tech topics aimed squarely at the TV addicts of the world – from tips and tricks to help you better your TV experience, to gear recommendations, to the impact technology is having on the TV shows we love.

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  • The effect is created by taking advantage of how people perceive depth in the real world.