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Want It or Not, TV Goes 3-D

Thursday, 14 Jan 2010 | 11:03 AM ET

At the end of each season of “The Amazing Race,” the host always says something like: “Five continents, 14 countries, 21 days, 25,000 miles. You are the official winners of ‘The Amazing Race!’ ”

At the end of each year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, he really ought to be there at the airport to greet you: “Five days, 2,500 exhibitors, 2 million feet of floor space, 110,000 journalists and industry reps. You are an official survivor of C.E.S.!”

And instead of a million dollars, he should offer you a full night of sleep, which, at that point, is much more valuable.

Every year, the electronics company lemmings all schedule their big product announcements at C.E.S., and every year, all those simultaneous announcements cancel one another out. Instead of making a big splash, they get drowned in the roar.

Fairgoers wear special '3D' glasses as they watch a movie on a 3D TV screen.
John Macdougall | AFP | Getty Images
Fairgoers wear special '3D' glasses as they watch a movie on a 3D TV screen.

And no wonder; in many respects, other than the emergence of 3-D television, the themes of this year’s show were identical to last year’s. Big, bright, thin, flat TV screens. Eco-conscious design. Reduced power consumption. Download services (Vudu, Netflix, Amazon) built into more TV sets and Blu-ray players. Incrementally improved cameras, camcorders, printers, laptops, Blu-ray players, accessories, audio gear, home theater stuff, phones, car electronics.

There were some all-new items. A bunch of small companies introduced e-book readers, in hopes of snagging some of that Kindle/Nook/Sony Reader action. A bunch of computer companies announced plans to make touch-screen Windows slab computers, so that they’ll be ready when Apple releases its own much-rumored touch-screen slate. Nobody seems to remember that Microsoft tried to push this concept, then called the Tablet PC, a few years ago, and it pretty much flopped.

The biggest news of all, though, was the explosion of interest in 3-D television. Interest by the companies making them, that is. Whether normal people have any interest is a big question.

At C.E.S., if you stood in line long enough, you could watch prototype 3-D TV screens at the Sony, Samsung, Toshiba, LG and Panasonic booths. (“Booth” may not be quite the word for the enormous, million-dollar, half-a-football-field miniworlds built by corporate giants within the Las Vegas Convention Center.)

If you’ve ever seen a movie in 3-D — “Avatar,” “Up,” “Polar Express” and so on — then you’ve already seen the effect. You wear plastic glasses, and you get a sensation of depth in the movie image. Sometimes the filmmaker pulls cheesy stunts like having a character shove a pole “out of the screen,” nearly into your face; at other times, as in “Avatar,” the 3-D effect lends a subtler depth and realism to a scene.

At C.E.S., the screens were big, the images were high-def, the sound systems were state of the art, and the video samples were vivid and punchy. They made 3-D TV seem fantastic. You almost couldn’t wait to buy one when they come out this summer.

But once the retractable leash pulled your C.E.S. demo glasses back onto their pedestal for the next customer, you’d be forgiven for having a few doubts.

Pogue: 3D TV
New York Times personal technology columnist David Pogue looks at 3D TV, the biggest hit at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

First of all, those glasses. E-w-w-w. Do we really want to have to put on glasses every time we sit down for some TV? Don’t we lose something when we look around the room to exchange glances, and we can’t see anyone’s eyes? Do we really want to nuzzle up to our fiancées and spouses with those things on?

You’ll get one or two pairs of glasses with each set. Additional glasses will cost $75 or more. So if you invite 12 buddies over for a Super Bowl party to inaugurate your expensive new 3-D set, you’ll have to lay out $750 just so everyone can watch the game. Better hope nobody fails to show.

(And no, you can’t ask your friends to bring their own glasses. The TV manufacturers haven’t agreed on a standard, so one company’s glasses may not work with another company’s TV. Argh.)

The glasses included with these modern sets are a far cry from the old cardboard movie glasses. Today’s glasses use something called active-shutter technology, in which the lenses turn black and then clear again, really fast, in sync with the TV picture’s alternating left eye/right eye images.

But active-shutter glasses are battery powered. Can’t you just see it? You settle down to watch the big season finale, and you hear, from the kitchen: “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry — I forgot to recharge the TV glasses last night!”

Nor is 3-D a blessing to everything you would watch on TV. It primarily benefits sports, concerts, video games, and, of course, all those animated 3-D movies that, until now, required a trip to the movie theater.

(It’s sort of amazing that Hollywood is just standing by, watching the TV industry plot to suck their moviegoing public right back out of the theaters. Wasn’t the whole idea behind the recent 3-D movie craze to get people away from their home theaters and back into the multiplex?)

On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine your wanting to put on those glasses for news, talk shows, game shows, sitcoms, cooking shows, interior design shows and PBS pledge drives.

Which brings up another concern: What are you going to watch?

Introducing 'upgrate fatigue'

If your answer is movies, then you’ll have to buy not just a new TV, but also a new 3-D Blu-ray player. And, of course, you’ll have to buy your movies all over again, or at least the 3-D ones.

If your answer is, “I’ll watch 3-D TV broadcasts,” well, you’ll do a lot of waiting. Several 3-D channels have been announced (by ESPN, DirecTV and a joint venture of Sony, Imax and Discovery). But count on a lot of repeats, at least at the outset; 3-D shows don’t really exist yet, and filming them requires expensive, heavy, dual-lens TV cameras.

None of these broadcasts will be in high definition, by the way. A 3-D broadcast requires a lot more data than a regular HDTV channel; it won’t fit in the same bandwidth unless you sacrifice some picture information. As a result, 3-D cable, satellite and Web broadcasts will offer only half the resolution (clarity) of HDTV. Only Blu-ray players will produce full, hi-def 3-D images.

Finally — and this is the big one — didn’t we just go through this? Didn’t the TV makers and broadcasters just finish dragging the populace through a confusing, expensive transition from our old TV system into the new, flat-panel, high-definition age? Didn’t we just buy flat-panel digital TV sets and Blu-ray players and Blu-ray movies, believing that we’d be set for the next decade at least?

And now we find out we’ve got to start all over again — buy a new TV, a new Blu-ray player, new movie discs — to accommodate this new format?

I think there’s something called Upgrade Fatigue, my friends, and I think the TV industry is about to face-plant right into it.

Now, 3-D boosters point out that these screens also work beautifully as regular sets for everything we already watch on TV. So it’s not that you’ll be left with nothing to watch if 3-D turns out to be a bust. They encourage us to think of 3-D TVs as regular hi-def sets with a little extra option. Indeed, some sets will be sold as “3-D ready,” meaning that you can add the glasses and transmitter later.

Just keep in mind that the next generation of TV technology was also on display at C.E.S.: 3-D sets that don’t require any glasses at all. Right now, they offer low resolution, limited viewing positions and headache-inducing images. But they’ll get better. And in a few more years, they’ll be ready.

That, no doubt, will be just after we’ve all junked our five-year-old HDTV sets, and bought the active-shutter 3-D screens that were on display at this year’s C.E.S.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.