Is 3D the future of TV?

With 3D movies hitting cinemas, and the new screens, broadcasts and games arriving as early as 2010, we ask if TV is really about to enter another dimension

3D is fast becoming one of the buzz words of 2009: thanks to Hollywood's unrestrained enthusiasm for embracing the third dimension, Blu-ray will soon follow suit. And with Sky looking to develop 3D over its Sky+ HD platform, the prospect of 3D TV broadcasts, movies and games is upon us.

Excited? There's good reason to be. The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) will soon ratify a spec for 3D Blu-ray (or is that '3D BD'?), which will guarantee 1080p HD resolution to both eyes, plus backward compatibility for both players and discs - meaning a 3D disc will also include a standard 2D version.

Entertainment revolution
The big hardware manufacturers are also talking a good game when it comes to 3D: at this year's CEATEC show in Japan, both Sony and Panasonic devoted the bulk of their energy to talking up the new technology as the next big thing.

Sony CEO Howard Stringer has recently gone on record as saying "The 3D train is on the track, and we are ready to drive it home."

This is yet another indication of the industry's bullish approach to getting the rest of us to embrace the new format. And Sky is getting heavily in on the act with promises to begin broadcasting TV programmes in 3D sometime next year.

Another format war?
But hang on: haven't we been here before? After all, 3D movies are hardly a new idea, even if James Cameron's upcoming 3D epic Avatar is fast becoming the most hyped movie of all time. In fact, it was back in 1894 that British film pioneer William Friese-Greene first filed a patent for a 3D movie process using an early stereo cine camera.

We also lay out the 3D movies and games that have been promised, and explain the big players and the different technologies they're using.

Which leads us to a word of warning. Sony and Panasonic are currently working on entirely different systems, each hoping theirs becomes the industry standard. Is this another destructive format war in the offing? We sincerely hope not...

3D - Pros and cons

+ Provides a more immersive experience, especially for games
+ Enables you to see new 3D cinema releases as the director intended
+ Depending on the system, discs viewable on existing hardware (in 2D)
+ Sky planning 3D broadcasts
+ 2012 Olympics due to be shot in 3D

The Cons
- You'll need a new TV
- You'll need a new Blu-ray player
- You'll need to wear special glasses to watch the 3D content
- Not exactly family-friendly: how many pairs of those glasses will you need?
- TVs able to display 3D without glasses are still some years off

Until it's possible for TVs to show 3D pictures without the need for separate left and right eye images to be viewed one after the other, we're going to be stuck with wearing special glasses to watch it.

Things have moved on a bit from the old red and green filters of the 1950s 3D cinema boom, although some movies are still being issued using just that technology – the future is either in lenses with different polarisation, or fast-reaction LCD shutters for each eye.

Panasonic has been showing off a twin-lens camera for shooting 3D, and says its plasma technology is the only way forward, thanks to its fast response time, the ability to switch off picture elements quickly with minimal afterglow, and newly developed LCD glasses with sharper responses.

And it gave a hint of the possible pricing of the glasses, and so the TVs, recently in Japan: four pairs of glasses could sell for around £140, or about 10 per cent of the price of the TV. So £1400 for the TV, then.

Single lens or double lens?
So, Panasonic says back-compatibility is ensured by sending one eye's worth of signal to a 2D TV. Sony has a different plan: its single lens 3D camera prototype uses mirrors instead of shutters, and shoots at 240fps. At that speed, the eye can't see the switching frames when the 3D picture is watched without special glasses, so it sees a 2D image – handy for back-compatibility.

And the single-lens design keeps the image better aligned with rapid camera movement – as in sport – according to Sony.
The Blu-ray Disc Association will attempt to lay down a 3D Blu-ray standard before the end of this year, but Panasonic seems bullishly determined to win people over to its proposals as the only way forward.

Let's hope a standard gets put in place soon: after Blu-ray vs HD DVD, the last thing we need is a yet another format war.

All the major consumer electronics companies have 3D plans: Panasonic, Sony, Sharp and Toshiba were among those demonstrating 3D at the recent CEATEC Japan 2009 show, while both LG and Samsung have demonstrated 3D hardware in the past.

And here in the UK, Sky has carried out its first demonstrations of 3D broadcasts, and says it plans to begin transmitting in 2010.

Panasonic is going big on 3D, with an extensive (and expensive) tie-in with James Cameron's forthcoming Avatar movie, 3D roadshows in both Europe and the States, and a large press contingent flown to Japan recently to be told how the company is planning its 3D attack.

Much of its stand at CEATEC was all about 3D, and the company plans to have both 3D TVs and 3D-capable Blu-ray players on sale next year.

For Panasonic, the future is 3D, and on plasma screens: it won't be drawn on what screen sizes it will be targeting, but the screens on show in Japan were 50in, rather than the enormous 103in models the company has used for previous demonstrations.

Sky prepares to broadcast 3D
Sony, meanwhile, devoted almost all of its CEATEC stand to 3D, drawing on its movie, games and music divisions for content. Not surprisingly, LCD screens play a big part in the Sony 3D push, as for Sharp and Toshiba.

Sky has so far shown a few demonstrations of 3D TV, and says it's experimenting with coverage of live and studio events at the moment. However, it's not yet clear whether it's planning a dedicated 3D channel, or whether it will just offer 3D content on existing channels, or indeed what changes of equipment will be needed.

If you needed proof that the 3D train is gaining speed,look no further than the film industry, which is embracing the new wave of 3D with a gusto bordering on hysteria.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of Dreamworks, has stated that James Cameron's new movie Avatar, will be the 'watershed moment' for the 3D film industry, going on to say the blockbuster will be 'to 3D what The Wizard of Oz was to colour'.

Animation and horror go 3D
In fact, by the end of the year no fewer than 15 3D movies will have been released during 2009, with many more planned for 2010. Up premiered in 3D at Cannes this year, while Ice Age : Dawn of the Dinosaurs and horror-fest My Bloody Valentine are also getting the 3D treatment.

Next year will see 3D releases of Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland and many more. With so much content hitting cinemas, the home entertainment world will be eager to keep up.

Although there have been no firm announcements from Sony or Microsoft regarding 3D, it's no secret that both companies see it as the future of gaming. Could Gran Turismo 5 be a flagship 3D title? Well, we've already seen a 3D version of the game in action, and it looks amazing.

We've seen a number of other games running in 3D, too, and if we're yet to be convinced by 3D movies, we're sold on 3D games. Motor racing titles do seem to work most convincingly, but LittleBigPlanet's cutesy graphics also pop off the screen brilliantly. And just imagine Call of Duty with bullets flying right out of your TV. Now, that's what 3D was made for.


* The movie studios and the cinema chains love 3D - they can charge more for seats for the movies, with relatively little extra cost (especially with so much CGI content) in production.

* They also love it because it's virtually impossible to shoot illicit camcorder pirate copies of movies in cinemas – all you get on tape is a swimmy, out of focus image.

* In the home, they're hoping the extra cost model can be repeated, with premium prices for 3D disc releases. But research in the States suggests consumers will only pay a little extra, and would rather not pay any premium, for their 3D movies.

* The consumer electronics companies love 3D because it allows them once more to market premium-priced products, in the face of relentless downward pressure on the retail price of large-screen TVs and Blu-ray players. One US analyst recently suggested BD player prices may fall as low as $50 in the near future _ 3D will, the companies hope, allow higher prices again.

* And the Blu-ray Disc Association? Well, it loves 3D because only BD has enough capacity to hold two 1080P pictures and stream them out simultaneously. Try doing that on DVD! And of course, that means more people will hopefully be tempted to upgrade to Blu-ray, rather than missing out on 3D.

Read our blog on Channel 4 in 3D

Andy Clough

Andy is Global Brand Director of What Hi-Fi? and has been a technology journalist for 30 years. During that time he has covered everything from VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and DCC to CDi, Laserdisc and 3D TV, and any number of other formats that have come and gone. He loves nothing better than a good old format war. Andy edited several hi-fi and home cinema magazines before relaunching in 2008 and helping turn it into the global success it is today. When not listening to music or watching TV, he spends far too much of his time reading about cars he can't afford to buy.