“What happened to 3D TVs?” a fellow dad asked me last weekend while we were each keeping an eye on our respective offspring at a fifth birthday party. No doubt he was just making polite conversation, but little did he know that he’d just stumbled onto one of the many tech subjects that animates me far more than it probably should.
You see, even after all this time (manufacturers such as Samsung released their last 3D TVs in 2015) I’m still angry about the whole sorry saga. A saga in which manufacturers, so desperate to sell us flagship TVs with new technologies, pushed 3D with the insistence of Grandma pushing Bourbon biscuits, despite the fact that it was, at the time, crap.
You have to remember that this was the time of the 1080p, aka Full HD, TV – a resolution just a quarter of the 4K that’s now pretty commonly available. 1080p was fine for 2D TV at the time, but getting it to work with simple 3D glasses of the type you’d be given at the cinema involved dividing the resolution by two – one half for each eye. That level of resolution loss was obvious and not at all pleasant.
The solution some manufacturers went with was battery-powered, active glasses. These allowed for the native resolution of the content to be retained, even when watching in 3D. Brilliant! Except the glasses were very expensive (I recall those for the Panasonic plasma I had at the time were priced at about £90 / $110 / AU$170 a pair), they were never charged when you wanted to use them, and they were deeply uncomfortable, partly because the batteries made them heavy and partly because TV manufacturers unsurprisingly know very little about making eyewear.
Lots of people bought 3D TVs but only some of them actually wanted the 3D element – for everyone else it was just a feature of a TV they bought for other reasons. And even those who wanted 3D TV invariably found that either the quality was too poor (in the case of the passive glasses) or the experience too inconvenient (active glasses) and eventually gave up, and this apathy on the part of consumers eventually persuaded manufacturers to stop trying to force-feed everyone.
In the end, 3D TVs were unceremoniously put out to pasture right around the birth of 4K TVs. That’s no coincidence – manufacturers could afford to stop trying to convince us of the merits of one technology because they suddenly had another one to force into our unsuspecting faces (“How about a Custard Cream, deary?”).
The thing is, not only is 4K brilliant in its own right, but it's also precisely the technology that could have made 3D great.
The active glasses solution was never going to work. Too much of a faff. But if the cheap and cheerful passive glasses were combined with a 4K native display, you’d still get a 2K 3D presentation, which is more than adequate for a satisfying performance.
It's worth noting that 4K TVs with support for 3D did appear, but that was around 2015, when 3D was so unpopular that the likes of Sky, ESPN and the BBC had already ceased broadcasting 3D content. When 4K Blu-ray players finally arrived in 2016, 3D was already essentially dead.
The potential of 3D on 4K TVs really needs to be explored once more. Even better, 8K TVs are now available. With passive glasses, those would be able to deliver a 4K 3D image. Now that would be excellent, and surely a better use of those 8K TVs than actual 8K content, which looks as though it may never arrive and which seemingly no one except Samsung cares about.
To be clear, I’m not saying that 3D should be the next big thing for TVs. It’s only good for some content and for some people it will simply never appeal, but if done properly and for just some movies and games, I think it could be brilliant.
I suspect, though, that we’ll never find out, because the TV manufacturers screwed the whole thing up by going too hard and too fast when the technology was in its technologically compromised early stages.
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