Today's PC hardware limits streaming 3D content

Content providers are increasingly streaming 3D video over the Internet, but many computers are not yet 3D-ready and users may not be all that interested in that viewing option, analysts said.

Comcast earlier this week said it will stream live 3D footage over the Internet from The Masters golf tournament April 7-11 in Augusta, Georgia. Samsung last week said that it would start streaming 3D movies over the Internet starting in the fourth quarter of this year.

The streams can be played back on 3D HDTVs with Internet connectivity, but some major hardware changes are needed for 3D playback on PCs to gain widespread acceptance, analysts said. Few monitors today are 3D-capable, and most PCs today won't be capable of handling 3D because of poor graphics capabilities, analysts said.

Right now, the PC industry is heavily price-driven, and desktops and laptops ship with basic hardware that may be incapable of handling 3D content, said John Jacobs, director of notebook market research at DisplaySearch. Except for enthusiast buyers like gamers, 3D displays are in low demand, Jacobs said.

"Look at the purchase decisions -- there's a long laundry list of things driving the notebook market, but 3D is not on that list," Jacobs said. 3D is also of more interest to non-business users rather than to enterprises.

But 3D could be an interesting differentiator in laptops, Jacobs said. Asustek Computer and Acer are already shipping laptops with 3D capabilities for less than US$1,000, but for now those are just fringe features that don't drive purchases.

Last year, worldwide 3D PC display shipments, which include monitors and laptop displays, were less than 1 percent of the total, Jacobs said. There will continue to be limited interest, Jacobs said. DisplaySearch has a conservative forecast of low single-digit worldwide shipments for 3D displays over the next few years.

PCs could be priced at a premium not only because of the 3D screen, but also because of the expensive equipment, including a powerful graphics card, said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis. Users won't go to a retail store and pick up 3D PCs like they'd pick up 3D TVs, Greengart said.

Living rooms are the default home for 3D TVs, where multiple users can watch TV, Greengart said, noting that PC screens don't make for ideal 3D displays. The screens are not big enough to coax viewers to sit down and watch 3D content, nor can multiple viewers watch PC screens, Greengart said. Many 3D TVs shipping today exceed 40 inches in size, while PC monitors are smaller.

"Everything in the technology needs to change," Greengart said. There needs to be support for 3D playback through stronger graphics cards, and like TVs, more outlets like HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) ports need to be added in future displays through which gaming consoles or Blu-ray 3D players can be connected.

The graphics cards also need to shrink down to a point where laptops will be capable of handling 3D content, analysts said. Many laptops are capable of playing high-definition movies, but Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices have shown desktop graphics cards capable of handling Blu-ray 3D movies, and that technology may ultimately reach laptops.

Another hardware issue surrounds incompatible 3D glasses, analysts said. There are different types of active shutter and passive polarized glasses available to watch 3D content that may not work for all viewing devices, Jacobs said. TV makers have a vested interest in tying the glasses with their own screens to make money from them, Jacobs said.

The companies need to reach a consensus on a specific technology so 3D glasses work with a range of displays, Jacobs said.

However, one company, XpanD, on Tuesday announced universal 3D glasses called X103, which will work with multiple 3D TVs. Xpand worked with multiple TV makers while making the glasses.

"TV retailers cannot maintain 15 different models of glasses to support 15 different TV brands, rental AV companies cannot do it, and even 3D broadcasters ask for a universal pair of glasses that they can provide their 3D channel subscribers," said Ami Dror, Xpand's chief strategy officer, in a statement.

Further 3D research is also being directed toward TV sets, but may take longer to come to PCs, said Kurt Scherf, principal analyst at Parks Associates. Technologies like auto-stereoscopic displays, which show 3D images without the need for glasses, are being researched for TVs.

Nevertheless, PCs provide advantages over TVs in delivering 3D content, analysts said. The Internet is a good delivery mechanism and PCs let users store and watch 3D content that is not live. A PC display and TV set could also become one device, so it's hard to predict the future, Greengart said.

"It's too early to say how widespread this technology will be because there are so many moving parts. You need content, the delivery platforms and you need user acceptance," Greengart said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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