The facts about 3-D TV: Is it really ready?

Vendors are pushing expensive 3-D displays, but the technology may not be as ready as they claim.

After decades of being a gimmick confined to midnight movies, 3-D has finally hit the big time, with a slew of 3-D-enhanced films streaming out of Hollywood. And it's not just an IMAX theater spectacle; it's coming to living rooms and computer displays near you.

Donning glasses to see 3-D effects on a big-screen plasma display.

That is, provided you can afford it. 3-D video at its most sophisticated requires hardware that many people don't already have: 3-D-capable TVs and the electronic glasses used with them. 3-D capacity on a new high-end TV may not add that much to the base price -- figure on at least $2,500 for a 46-in. set -- but the glasses alone can run as much as $150 to $200 per pair.

Add it up for a family of four, and you're probably spending over $3,000.

Getting 3-D capabilities on a PC is also expensive. For example, a pair of Nvidia's 3-D Vision glasses are $200, but that's only part of the cost. You also need a display that can handle 3-D, which generally costs around $300 to $500 for a 22-in. or 23-in. display, and your PC must have a compatible Nvidia graphics card and be running Windows 7 or Vista.

LG and other companies are planning TVs that use the type of polarized 3-D seen in movie theaters, which would allow the use of glasses that cost only a few dollars -- but the sets themselves could run $500 to $1,000 more.

So although 3-D in the home has indeed become viable, it needs to be made into more than just a gimmick to justify its premium cost.

The history of 3-D

3-D imagery, or stereoscopy, has been around in various forms for a long time. The basic idea remains simple: Use two cameras to take the same picture from slightly different angles, as a way of reproducing how the human eye sees things. Fisher-Price's View-Master toy, which many of us had as children or have given to our own children, is a good example of a basic stereoscope.

Another early system was anaglyph 3-D -- the system that uses the iconic red and blue glasses. That process, patented in 1891 by French scientist Louis Ducos Du Hauron (but a refinement of a technique used since the 1840s), allowed only black-and-white images at first, but newer anaglyph systems, such as the ColorCode 3-D system introduced in the last decade, are able to reproduce a fairly large spectrum of colors.

Because anaglyph 3-D works in just about any format (TV, movies, print) and is relatively cheap to implement, it's still widely used today for "quick and dirty" 3-D effects. Even Nvidia's 3-D-enabled display hardware supports anaglyph 3-D as a lowest-common-denominator way to show 3-D on any display.

There are two big problems with anaglyph 3-D, however. One is a general fuzziness to the image, since details tend to get lost in the red channel. The second is the way a certain amount of color is always lost, even if you use a system that restores color.

An anaglyph 3-D image using the anachrome system to restore some of the original colors.

When 3-D hit the movies in the 1950s -- its first appearance was in Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil -- it used polarized 3-D, one of the most common systems still in use today for movies. The images for each eye were projected through a polarization filter, and the viewer wore polarized glasses to reconstruct the 3-D image. This system preserved color information and didn't lose as much image detail as anaglyph 3-D.

But it required a type of screen that preserved polarization of light, a phenomenon where light waves are filtered so that only those vibrating in a certain direction are allowed. This limitation made the system best suited to theatrical projection rather than TV. Also, many objects on screen still sported odd halos or blurry edges, which could make it uncomfortable to watch for prolonged periods of time.

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