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.

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A new technology emerges

It took the invention of the liquid crystal display, among other things, to bring us active-shutter 3-D technology, which is the current state of the art and the basis for most 3-D displays on the market today.

Viewers don glasses with lenses that are actually LCD shutters that can alternate between blocking the left and right eye 120 times per second -- in other words, they alternate at 120 Hz. They then look at a screen that syncs with the glasses to show the appropriate image for each eye. The images don't have blurry fringes or "ghosts" as they do in other systems, and either black-and-white or full-color images can be used.

The Asus G51J 3D laptop uses active-shutter 3-D technology.

But there are downsides. For one, between the darkened glasses and the 120-Hz image-switching, the image has its brightness effectively cut in half. This isn't bad if you're already in a darkened room (e.g., a home theater) but can be problematic if you're not. Second, you have to actually wear the glasses, and that by itself is a distraction -- doubly so for people who already have visual problems or simply find glasses annoying.

And finally, there is not yet a standard for 3-D glasses. So, for example, if you give a party for your kids and want to show a 3-D cartoon on your Sony TV, your kids' friends may not be able to watch the cartoon using the glasses from their Samsung TV. And at $200 a pop, it's unlikely you'll want to buy glasses for the whole crew.

The content crunch

What matters more than the tech, though, is content. Content is king, especially when it comes to 3-D, and right now there's just not very much 3-D video material out there, either live-broadcast or prerecorded.

Many of the barriers in generating 3-D content are both technical and economic. Much as the early years of color created technical challenges for film and TV crews, filming in 3-D requires special cameras and the technical expertise to use them. It's not insurmountable -- people can be brought in and trained on new equipment in fairly short order -- but only makes sense if the demand for 3-D content warrants it.

Of course, there's the possibility of converting existing 2-D material to 3-D. For example, although the recent remake of Clash of the Titans was not shot in 3-D, it did have a 3-D theatrical release.

It's also possible to have consumer equipment perform resynthesize 2-D to 3-D on the fly. Cyberlink's current version of its PowerDVD application comes with a feature called TrueTheater 3D, which allows 3-D video to be derived from a conventional 2-D DVD. Toshiba's series of Cell TVs also promises to convert 2-D to 3-D on the fly but won't be released until later this year.

The problem with either approach is that it requires adding picture information that was never there to begin with, and which can't always be deduced by analyzing a 2-D image (or even a 2-D motion stream). This was one of the problems faced by movie studios when they wanted to convert recent movies such as Titans and Alice in Wonderland from 2-D to 3-D. By the experts' own admission, some degree of manual work is required for the technique to really work, which means automatic conversion of 2-D to 3-D by software or hardware is going to yield limited results at best.

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