Once upon a time, you didn't need to be a technology buff to understand TV and the progress it made. Certainly the generation that witnessed the move from Black & White to Colour had no problem understanding the improvement and even the move from analogue TV (4 or 5 channels) to digital (Freeview in the UK) with 80 odd channels has been presented in a way that didn't bamboozle people too much. Analogue TV 4 channels. Digital, 80! Simple!
Along the way, there have been other advances that took the public a little longer to see the benefits. For example PVRs, or personal video recorders. It's likely that a lot of people still don't know what a PVR is, which is why TIVO left our shores in the early 2000's, having utterly failed to explain. But when Sky Launched Sky+ - boom! The market for PVRs exploded without anyone having to get swamped with jargon. Need to pause the live program you're watching to go to the toilet, or make a cup of tea? This can do it. Like the Simpons? A couple of buttons and your box will record every episode without you ever having to think about it. Clear benefit. Sold.
A lot of these advances have made the likes of Sky (UK satellite TV broadcaster) a lot of money. They know how to stay at the forfront of technology, but present it to their customers in a compelling way. The TV manufacturers have not been so lucky. The last big leap forward that they were to benefit from was the big flat screen technologies like LCD and plasma. See my article here about what to look for if you're in the market for one of these. We all saw the benefits of having huge 'cinema' like screens in our living rooms and all raced to the shops (or the dump to get rid of the old ugly boxes!). Sales like this didn't go unnoticed by lesser known manufacturers like those in China, who flooded the market with cheap, good enough, big screens and before long it was a race to the bottom with no real profit for anyone.
So what do the manufacturers do to survive? They look to the next big thing! What's the next big thing? 3D!!!
3D is currently all the rage in the cinema. We've been there before. There were 3D 'B-Movie' horrors back in the 1950's and who could forget 'Jaws 3D' back in the 1980s? We all could? Fair enough.
Well, Jaws 3D was never going to kick off the technology, but this time hopes were higher because of a small Hollywood Director called James Cameron (okay, one of the most successful ever) and his film Avatar.
Okay, Avatar was huge. Both in budget and success. It brought cutting edge 3D technology to the cinema screens and many (but not all) people were blown away. Not ones to miss a trick, especially when they're desparate, the TV manufacturers flew to making their own shouting "You can see this in your living room with our gear" and I must admit, after seeing Avatar I was pretty excited at the prospect. Until I saw the reality.
So after probably too long an introduction, here's my basic and somewhat negative explanation of 3D TV technology and why I think you shouldn't rush toward buying it yet. Especially if you've already shelled out on a nice big flatscreen already. I'm not going to say much about the 3D effect itself. Go see a 3D film at the cinema - it's totally subjective as to whether you get on with it or not.
Problem 1 - There are two technologies
It seems electronics manufacturers will never learn. Many of us heard about the VHS versus Betamax video recorder battles in the early 80's between Sony and JVC. Years later similar wars were waged between Sony and Toshiba fighting over Blu-Ray discs and HD-DVDs. Even when they can all agree on something, like the format for High Definition television, they released two standards to confuse everyone. Well, I'm afraid they've done it again, but this time they're not really telling us anything.
It's all about the glasses you have to wear whilst watching 3D television on your new set. Actually, maybe that should be problem number 1! You have to wear special glasses to be able to see the 3D! I wasn't particularly troubled by this in the cinema, but I'm not keen on the idea at home! Anyway, it turns out that not all glasses are the same. If you've been to see a 3D film at the cinema, you will have worn 'passive polarising' glasses. These basically direct the two layered images on the screen infront of you, one to each eye. The effect is good and the glasses are cheap. Guess how many manufacturers are going with these? That's right. Very few. Depending on which country you live in, maybe none. Most have gone with 'active-shutter' glasses. With this technology, your TV quickly flicks between the image bound for the left eye and then the image bound for the right eye in super-quick succession. The glasses are in constant contact with the television and synchronise the picture with shutters that move really quicky to block the image destined for the other eye. The difference between the left image and the right image are what can be used to trick the brain into seeing depth to the picture, or see stuff coming out of the screen right at you!
Problem Number 2 - Even if you buy the same technology, you probably won't be able to take your glasses to your mate's house
So, if you're able to get over the idea of wearing the glasses to watch ER and you've remembered to charge their batteries, then you're ahead. The effects for most are quite appealing and a clever Director (and by this I mean the one who will resist the temptation to have stuff flying out of the TV every second of the show) can add a level of immersion missing from 'flat' movies. You're going to want to share this right? I mean, how many people only watch their lovely big TV on their own? Especially when it's got the latest 3D technology in it to show off!
Okay, get some friends round, but first get your credit card out. You're going to need some more glasses so that they can see the 3D too. How much you say? Can't be too bad given that the cinema ones seem to be binned after one use. Try about £100. Each. Yes, each! Hmm, wonder why the TV manufacturers went for the expensive active-shutter glasses. Mmm lovely profit!!! These companies really aren't on our side.
I'm guessing my target audience for this article would be slightly shocked at the mounting costs here. I mean the TV is going to cost £1800, which is a BIG hike over a similarly capable but 2D flatscreen. But now the glasses are going to add another £100 for every person who wants to watch with you. If you have a big family, that's going to hurt the bank balance!
Still, the early adopters, those that don't mind paying a high price to be first with a new technology will pay this price. The rest of us can wait until the prices fall.
They're going to have to fall by quite a lot though - because you see, you can't even take your own glasses round to your mate's house to watch his 3D TV! If he has a different brand of telly, I'm afraid they just won't work! Yet another dealbreaker here and I love technology!
Problem Number 3 - Upgrade everything, not just your TV!
One thing the progress of television technology has done better at getting right in the past, is that you can upgrade your kit one bit at a time. When we went from VHS tapes to DVD, the makers of DVD saw fit to have the DVD players connect via the same cables as we were used to before. When the big flatscreens came along, the old DVD player would connect, but new connections were slowly brought in for newer kit like bluray, without having to do it right away. Even your bluray player and the move to High Definition (HD) didn't mean you had to bin all your DVDs. Put a DVD in a bluray player and the picture will look better than it ever did on your old DVD player.
So is 3D the same? If I just change the TV, I can change everything else later right? Well, yes and no. But mainly no!
3D TVs are very good at playing normal 2D television. Be it from your digital TV box, your DVD player or whatever you have connected. But you paid all of that money to watch 3D right?
Okay, here's what you need to replace to enjoy everything in 3D:
- 3D blu-ray player. Nope, your old player won't do it (although your PS3 will!)
- 3D digital still and video camera - these are just coming to market now
- 3D set top box - If you've got Sky HD, you're in luck - otherwise new box!
- New cables - Yes the old HD cables won't carry the signal and wasn't that HDMI cable pricey too?
Basically, you need to change everything. But don't spend a penny yet until you read my next heading:
Problem Number 4 - There's nothing to watch!!!
I've mentioned before that a lot of people who bought HD televisions were unaware that they were not watching 'high definition' television. For that you need a high definition source like a blu-ray player or HD set top box. At least the TV was nice and the pitcure was BIG! Well, with 3D I suspect most people will realise that they're not watching 3D, but they may not realise that there is very little out there ready to watch that is!
A big fuss, rightly, was made about Avatar. It looked amazing and would really show off a 3D TV in your living room. If it was out in 3D. Yes, it's out on blu-ray, but only in 2D. The 3D one won't be out until Christmas.
Sony made an awful big fuss during the advert breaks in this year's World Cup pointing out how great it would be to watch it in 3D. Well it would have been, if it were broadcast in 3D! (UK, I know ESPN did in the US - you guys don't even care about football!)
Yes, the content will come, but it will be a good year or two before there is a decent selection and what comes first will likely be 2D stuff that has just been converted. This just isn't the same. Trust me. It's already annoying people who regularly go to the cinema. Movies made in 3D work well. Movies converted look poor and may well drive 3D back to obscurity as the audiences refuse to pay the premium for such little gain (sometimes the effect is worse!).
Conclusion - Wait it Out
Sitting in front of my HDTV with my blu-rays and my ipad on the table, I'm forced to admit that I'm one of those weak early adopters who get overexcited about a new technology and buys in before the inevitable price drop. Not this time. The steep price, the glasses that won't work between different brands of television and the lack of content are just too off-putting. It's clear to me that the glasses themselves are just a stop-gap and pretty soon things will get shaken up as the first TV comes to market that can do 3D all by itself. Hopefully by that time there will be affordable accessible content to watch on it and then, maybe, you can count me in.
Featured image used under 'Creative Commons' license. Thanks to walkering.