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Prepare for a wave of 3-D TVs

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, that took place Jan. 7-10, let technology firms show off the latest gadgets and gizmos, while giving a sneak peak into futuristic devices. This year's show is featured more than 2,500 exhibitors and 120,000 attendees.

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By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, January 8, 2010

LAS VEGAS Finished catching your breath after the digital TV transition? Good -- the electronics industry has another upgrade in store for you. At the Consumer Electronics Show here, numerous vendors showed off new flat-panel televisions that can display three-dimensional video.

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CES, the annual gathering organized by the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association, tends to focus on one new technology each year. Some become immensely popular purchases, but some leave few traces in the market (for example, Tablet PCs). It's unclear which fate awaits 3-D TVs, this year's "it" gadget.

From one perspective, their advent makes a fair amount of sense. The box-office success of James Cameron's "Avatar" provides more than sufficient evidence of 3-D's appeal. And in demonstrations on the show floor, that extra dimension gave some programming real pop; for example, falling confetti seemed to float in front of the screen in a clip from the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, and when a skier carving a turn left a rooster trail of snow behind him, you could be forgiven for wanting to duck. Other views didn't look all that different; when seen from the cheap seats, the action on a football field doesn't have that much depth to it, even in the real world.

Appreciating these effects does require special glasses (more on those in a bit) to avoid seeing an irritatingly fuzzy doubled image of what's on the screen. But although this eyewear is bulkier than the plastic glasses you'd don to watch "Avatar," it's not uncomfortable.

From another view, however, marketers charged with selling 3-D sets to the public have a difficult job in store. Although 3-D movies will be available on Blu-ray discs (thanks to the industry settling on a standard for 3-D discs in December), Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications and ESPN plan to launch new 3-D channels, and DirecTV plans to carry 3-D programming by June, most stuff on TV will continue to be confined to two dimensions for years. (Samsung and Toshiba plan to sell sets that can convert 2-D video to 3-D automatically, but a demonstration of this at Samsung's exhibit looked disappointing; some scenes had no sense of extra depth, while fast-moving figures sometimes appeared in duplicate.)

And there's no ignoring the cost of new 3-D TVs. They require substantially more processing power, plus battery-powered "active" glasses that must be linked wirelessly to the TV to stay in sync. Manufacturers here won't give out price estimates, but it seems likely that the first round of sets will cost $3,000 and up. Don't forget to budget for a new Blu-ray player too, although Sony's PlayStation 3 game console will gain 3-D Blu-ray and game support with a firmware upgrade.

Even a $4,000 price for a new 3-D set would fall well below the five-digit costs of the first flat-panel TVs, which have long since been succeeded by today's commodity-priced LCD and plasma screens. But the buyers of those cheaper flat-panel sets aren't all going to step onto the upgrade treadmill so soon. Some will -- the city outside the convention center should provide sufficient evidence of people's willingness to part with their money for an out-of-the-ordinary experience -- but they may not constitute more than a niche audience for many CES conventions to come.

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