Your TV Tech Fix: Full Steam Ahead for 3D in 2011

It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since my last entry, and you have my sincerest apologies for the long wait. You see, for a tech writer the holiday season is both the best and worst time of the year. The Christmas holiday leads to New Years, and before we can even settle in for another year we’re all whisked off to Las Vegas for the massive Consumer Electronics Show. Here, manufacturers show us the future of consumer electronics, everything from prototype products that may never see the light of day to actual SKUs bound for stores within the year. Calling it a circus would be an understatement.

For 2011, two major trends dominated the show floor – expect to see 25,000 new tablet computers coming from every manufacturer in the world,  and (important for you TV addicts out there) the 3DTV train ain’t stopping any time soon.

3DTV was the hot commodity at CES the year prior, but this year 3D was everywhere. From big screen TVs, to portables, to 3D gaming and everything else in between. The message is crystal clear, manufacturers want you to want 3D bad and they’re building it into everything. Well… almost everything. And while some (like certain TV bloggers I know) claim all the 3D technology to be a “cash grab,” the truth of the matter is integrating 3D capabilities into more stuff is anything but.

First, in this industry the latest technological breakthroughs start at the high end of a product line. This allows for higher margins and smaller distribution to try and recoup some of the development costs (particularly while technologies are unique), while also ensuring new technologies are reliable enough for mass distribution and of interest to the market.  As the technology ages, proves itself to be worthwhile, and new advancements emerge, yesterday’s tech trickles down the line into cheaper products.

Second, once one manufacturer adds a feature, it is inevitable the rest will follow suit. It doesn’t really matter what it is. If Panasonic (for example) has x feature in their plasma TVs, expect to find something comparable in Samsung’s in short order.  No manufacturer’s products can be left behind, and a feature will find its way into everything faster if there’s a price premium for it, it’s in demand, or is marketable.

Knowing this is important for two reasons. One, 3D is a feature, not a TV in and of itself. When you buy a 3DTV, you’re really getting a nice HDTV with ability to show 3D images. Two, 3D capability was a new feature to flat-panel TVs in 2010, and therefore was only integrated into the relatively high-end HD sets (at least until Samsung dropped a $1000 3D model on the market in August). This year, 3D features will be integrated into far more TVs in the lineup. If you’re shopping for a decent sized TV  in 2011, and pick one of decent quality, there’s a good chance you’ll get 3D capabilities with it.

Of course, manufacturers want you to WANT to run out and buy a 3DTV right now, before 3D ends up as another check-box feature on every single TV sold. For that to happen, they’ve had to work hard on dealing with a huge amount of negative consumer feedback. The message: “We don’t like 3D glasses.” To be more specific, consumers don’t seem to keen on active shutter 3D systems, which requires expensive, bulky, battery powered glasses. So, manufacturers have made real strides in directly addressing this issue in 2011.

Confused? Learn the 3D basics in my 3DTV 101 post here at >>

For starters, some TV manufacturers are introducing  passive 3D systems this year; far more than I expected. These TVs still use glasses, but they’re the polarized kind like you use in the theater (in fact, with most of them you can actually use any glasses you have left from your last trip to the movies). Polarized systems have several advantages. For example, they are a bit easier on the eyes for most and the glasses are cheap so everyone in the house can enjoy 3D at once. The downside, the current technology relies on technology called a “field pattern retarder,” which chops the effective resolution in half.

The rest of them, like Samsung, are sticking with active shutter exclusively for 2010 since it is the only “full-HD” 3D solution available right now. However, they’re introducing more advanced glasses that are smaller, lighter, and offer better performance. The judges are still out on that one.

I have no doubt 3D penetration will skyrocket over the next few years. After all, 3D will end up in every TV sold. So, people will have a 3DTV in the house, but the real question is will anyone use it? You see, content, both the quantity and the quality, is still the major issue. Don’t get me wrong, there’s far more Blu-Ray 3D movies available today than there were for most of 2010, and many of them offer a pretty good 3D experience. Television support for 3D, however, is pretty weak overall. Expect to see even more poorly produced sports and live events for 2011, unless ESPN and others can really up their game.

In many ways, I believe 2011 will be the real breakout year for 3D. Nintendo’s 3DS is going to drive crazy interest in 3D when it ships in March, and when people go to the store throughout the year they’ll find a wide variety of sets for sale, bundled with glasses and Blu-Ray players, for a surprisingly affordable price. It’s only a matter of time.

See more in-depth 3D coverage from CES 2011 at >>

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), 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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