By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; A01
The 21st century may finally be starting, one decade late.
A raft of sci-fi-inspired gadgets and technologies are being announced this month, promising a future of 3-D television, super-smart phones and next-generation electronic tablets that wrap the features of a laptop and a digital book into one wafer-thin package.
If you think you've heard all this before, well, you have. Moviegoers were donning 3-D glasses in the 1950s, and legions of gee-whiz devices have come and gone, with little discernible improvement of the human condition.
What makes this month notable is the sheer number of pitches being shouted by tech and media giants ranging from Apple to Google to Sony to Discovery Communications, in the hope that recession-weary Americans are ready to start spending their discretionary income again. These corporate goliaths maintain large cash balances, enabling them to spend money on product development during downturns while smaller rivals struggle to stay afloat.
The buzz kicked off Tuesday with the rollout of Google's Nexus One smartphone, which marks the search-engine giant's first foray into hardware and represents a broadside aimed at Apple's popular iPhone.
A flurry of announcements is coming before the Thursday kickoff of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the tech industry's annual bacchanalia of personal-jet-pack futurism and gadget fetishization. If these devices and technologies pan out, they may represent significant steps forward, rather than just refinements of existing technology.
Also on Tuesday, broadcasting giants ESPN and Discovery each said they will launch 3-D television networks; ESPN's this year, Discovery's in 2011. To create the unnamed 3-D channel, Silver Spring's Discovery is forming a joint venture with 3-D theater pioneer Imax and Sony, which makes cameras that film in 3-D.
Like "Avatar," the blockbuster film currently in theaters, programming on these two new channels would require special glasses to achieve the you-are-there benefit of 3-D.
Special glasses? To watch TV at home? Really?
"Consumers seem quite willing to put on glasses in a movie theater," Imax chief executive Richard Gelfond said in a conference call Tuesday. "We're going to create something compelling for consumers, and they're going to want to put on glasses."
Sony chief executive Howard Stringer envisioned 3-D TV without the need for glasses "in three to five years."
Set makers, such as Sony, hope 3-D programming will drive demand for new televisions in the same way that high-definition broadcasts pushed consumers to junk their old analog TVs. South Korea's LG Electronics, the world's second-biggest TV maker, said last month that it hopes to sell 400,000 3-D TVs this year and 3.4 million next year. Any manufacturer's 3-D set is likely to cost at least $3,000.
But if the transition from analog to HD is any guide, the migration to 3-D could take years. Discovery launched its HD channel in 2002, and it took seven years for HD TVs to start selling at a rate of nearly 30 million units per year.
Further, the upgrade strategy has not always worked. Years of industry squabbling over a new format for DVDs -- HD vs. Blu-ray -- finally was settled with Blu-ray as the winner. Yet sales of Blu-ray DVD players have hardly surged.A first for Google
Google's Nexus One is a big step forward because it represents the company's first venture into hardware, as opposed to its current moneymaker: selling advertising alongside its various services. Google, which has 66 percent of the global search market, hopes to expand its empire by claiming the mobile phone market.
Unlike Apple's iPhone, which is limited to AT&T's network, Google boasts that the Nexus is not tied to any one service provider. But that freedom comes at a price -- $529 for the phone. A T-Mobile deal, by comparison, offers it for $179 with a two-year service contract.
Some analysts see the Nexus as a way for Google to gain more control over its destiny. As a provider of Web-based services from e-mail to street maps, the company may have perceived a need to secure a gateway to the wireless Web, as well as to show off its vision for the devices that access its services. For instance, the Nexus offers voice commands for every feature.
"In this day and age, you need to have a play beyond being just a content company," said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group.Apple's newest secret
Meanwhile, Apple is fighting to keep its kingpin title among the tech hipsterati with its newest device, expected to be unveiled this month: a digital tablet similar in size to the Amazon Kindle but with more eye-popping features. The Kindle allows customers to wirelessly buy books over the Internet and read them on a screen a little larger than a paperback and as thin as a few pages.
Even though Apple's tablet remains cloaked in the company's typical secrecy, industry insiders expect a full-color screen that will play videos in addition to displaying type. Though the tablet is likely to come with a big wow factor, some analysts are warning that Apple is becoming too insular -- creating its own closed environment, rather than making products that can work on a number of devices, as Google is.
"Will Apple's insistence on maintaining end-to-end control, on trying to shoot the moon by owning every aspect of the mobile computing business, doom it to failure against a competitor hell-bent on achieving software ubiquity?" tech analyst and blogger Henry Blodget wrote Tuesday.
Excited techies, meanwhile, are calling this year's Consumer Electronics Show the "3-D show."
And unlike the '50s fad, 3-D is here to stay, said Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, which released "Monsters vs. Aliens" in 3-D last year. Last year, 3-D put down a footprint in theaters; this year, Katzenberg said, it's coming to your home.
"The home experience in 3-D is very different than the movie theater experience," Katzenberg said in an interview Tuesday. "The analogy I make is it's like watching the Redskins play live versus watching them at home on TV. . . . The 3-D home experience will be very good, but very different."
Staff writers Lisa de Moraes and Mike Musgrove contributed to this report.