3D at home: look out, there's a monster coming…

So, the 2009 IFA show has been awash with 3D demonstrations from big names including LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony.

The Blu-ray Disc Association is promising 3D standards will be set by the end of the year.

And some of the big movers and shakers are promising we'll start seeing 3D TV systems in British homes next year.

Excited yet? It seems you should be: we're told 3D TV at home is going to be the Next Big Thing. Flat, it seems, is so noughties; the 2010s are going to jump out of the screen at us.

But there's a bigger picture behind all this, and it has rather more depth than you might initially imagine.

Half a century ago, the movie studios and cinema chains got together to try to stave off the growth of television and woo us back into going to the pictures, bringing us everything from 3D and CinemaScope to Smell-0-Vision and Sensurround.

The recent return of 3D to the cinema, and its impending arrival in our front rooms, is also about money; it's to do with addressing declining revenues.

Pressure on prices
You see, the big names of consumer electronics reckon we're not paying enough for our latest shiny gadgets. The price of LCD TVs is falling by 20% each year, even though demand from China is creating a shortage of LCD display panels, and thus record high prices.

As I commented here, £135 ex-factory for a 32in panel, but well under £300 for a completed TV, doesn't make sound economic sense in anyone's book. And as those TV prices fall by a fifth every year, the LCD panel price just went up 20% in a month.

What's more, the Blu-ray Disc Association is saying that we'll soon be seeing player prices fall well below the £100 mark – that's good for consumer uptake, but not so great for manufacturers' revenue streams.

After all, once consumers understand that £80 is what you pay for a Blu-ray player, and £269 the going rate for a 32in LCD TV, persuading them to pay any more for a premium product is something of a hard sell. Ask Pioneer…

Product differentiation
That's not to say the manufacturers haven't been trying their hardest to set their premium products apart from the budget stuff at the bottom end of the mass-market: think larger screens, thinner screens, internet-capable screens, LED-lit screens and so on.

But given that all flat TVs look much the same to many consumers – a flatscreen is a flatscreen is a flatscreen, and many still refer to LCDs as 'plasmas' – it really is tough to get mass-market consumers to spend more.

Oh, and the movie companies have the same problem: Blu-ray may have been launched as a premium product, set above DVD, but as the format gains momentum so prices are tumbling, and it's not hard to pick up titles online for well under a tenner.

And the DVD movie? Once the premium product, it's now something you throw in the trolley during the weekly shop, or even get free with your weekend newspaper.

3D: the new revenue stream
Hence 3D. Just as the studios and cinema chains have found it possible to charge premium prices for seats for 3D movies, so they have every intention of boosting their margins by launching titles on 3D Blu-ray at top prices.

(As an aside, did you know there's another reason why the studios like 3D for cinema releases? Bit trickier to knock off a pirate version using covert camcorders in the auditorium when the on-screen picture is a fuzzy blur of two overlaid images.)

In the hardware world, 3D at home could be next big bonanza, or at least so the big names hope. Now they've taken us from CRT to flatscreen, from HD ready to Full HD, and from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray, the mere fact of better picture quality is running out of steam as a 'must have' proposition.

New player, new TV
3D, however, will require a new player and a new TV: after all, the player will have to deliver twin 1080p picture-streams, and the TV show twice as much information as it does now, if 3D isn't to be at the expense of lower overall picture quality.

And you can be sure those 3D products are going to sit at the top of the manufacturer's price-ranges, just as 3D Blu-rays will be pitched above the regular editions.

Yes, there's the reassurance that the new players will be back-compatible, allowing conventional 'flat' BD titles to be played, and 3D titles to be played in 2D, unless the disc mandates that it will only play in 3D, but there's no mention of the new discs being compatible with old players.

So we may well see titles getting exclusive releases in 3D to keep the early adopters and enthusiasts happy, perhaps with added content, and then appearing in 2D versions a little later. If you don't buy the 3D version, you may be made to feel like a bit of a pauper.

Let's not get carried away, chaps...
However, let's hope that the electronics companies and content providers don't get carried away with the whole 3D thing, and think that entire back catalogues can be tweaked up with a bit of depth and the odd pop-out computer graphic.

We've seen the beginnings of this with a demonstration I had last year in Korea of a chunk of Pearl Harbor processed into 3D, and there are already rumblings of Pixar, Lucasfilm and others 're-imagining' classic movies such as the Toy Story and Star Wars series into 3D.

They should pay heed to the controversy still surrounding the 'colourising' of content originally shot and screened in black and white. The early attempts, notoriously by the TNT movie channel, and the cost of the process, eventually led tycoon Ted Turner to abandon his plan to rework the extensive movie libraries he'd acquired into colour.

And yet it still goes on: last night I caught the start of Discovery HD's WWII in Colour and HD, its latest attempt at repackaging the archive film at the heart of much of its historical output.

Much heralded, it was packed with swimmy colours, fuzzy edges and aircraft looking like they'd come from the lid of an Airfix box. Only brighter.

To be frank, I started to watch it because I thought I should see what the quality was like. I gave up after a few minutes – the picture quality was pretty hard on the eyes.

I'm sure 3D done properly won't be like that when we're sitting at home watching through our special alternate shutter glasses – but I do fear the need to feed the 3D monster once it's unleashed will mean as much bad content as good...

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.