3D HDTV Format War Declared!

Everyone thinks the big story at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show starting Jan. 5 in Lost Wages will be the new crop of tablet PCs as everyone rushes to topple Apple. Again. (Good luck with that!) They'll miss the real story at CES: a new 3D HDTV technology.

It's no surprise that the various tablet contenders to the iPad will take center stage. Motorola is readying its Android 3.0 Tablet Evolution, HP's CEO has already starting trashing Android as the venerable PC maker prepares to launch its first WebOS-powered PalmPad, and BlackBerry will preview its PlayBook.

To which I sarcastically scoff, woo hoo. In spite of all that, Apple is patiently stacking chips to re-raise ya'll with its iPad 2 right after the show and all Motorola, HP, BlackBerry, maybe someone with a Windows Mobile 7 tab, and all the other Android tabs are doing is diluting their competitive impact with multiple incompatible formats.

It's the frenzy to counter the iPhone all over again, and it'll take the spotlight off of 3D HDTV, where the real action is.

But Stewart, you mock. 3D HDTV is stupid. No one is buying it. Why should anyone care about another 3D technology?

Other than awful in-store demos and hardly any 3D content, the abject failure of 3D HDTV thus far is the glasses. Everyone I talk to asks, "When will we have glassless 3D HDTV?" My answer is always, "Maybe in your lifetime."

Since we're not getting glassless 3D HDTV any time soon and current active shutter glasses are compatible only with the sets they came with, expensive, power-hungry and, after a while, heavy on the nose, a middle ground compromise is needed.

To meet that need, a number of TV manufacturers will be unveiling passive (aka "circular") 3D HDTV sets at CES. Instead of active shutter glasses, passive 3D HDTVs use the same cheap polarized glasses you get in the movie theater.

Thus far only Vizio has started selling a passive 3D HDTV, the 65-inch Theater 3D Edge Lit Razor LED (model number XVT3D650SV), priced at $3,700.

But there'll be more in a couple of weeks.

The usual 3D suspects

I don't have any on-the-record confirmations about any other passive 3D introductions, but an outfit called Polaroid Eyewear has a booth at CES showing off their passive 3D glasses. Why would anybody buy 3D glasses you get for free in the movies? Because, according to their PR gal, "many of the next generation 3D TVs from the major players set to launch at CES are expected to use circular [passive 3D] technology." That's like a clue, right?

So, after some poking around, I've made some educated guesses about some other likely major player passive 3D HDTV candidates:

LG has been making passive panels in Korea and earlier this year introduced two passive 3D consumer models into the U.K. market, so I'll bet we'll see LG passive 3D models for the U.S. market at CES.

JVC has been selling a 46-inch passive 3D monitor and so is a top candidate to introduce a consumer model.

Sony also sells commercial passive 3D HDTVs for the broadcast market, so, maybe...

And Toshiba's name has been bandied about in connection with passive 3D HDTV.

What is "circular" 3D?

It doesn't matter — which means several people have tried to explain it to me, but my college degree is in communications not physics or electrical engineering. As far as I can decipher what I've been told, all 3D uses polarization technology invented by Edwin Land — yes, the guy who invented Polaroid cameras — back in 1936. For 3D, there has to be filtering to direct the right set of image signals to each eye. In active shutter HD, the filtering is done by the glasses. In passive, filters have to be built into the TV.

"Circular" refers to the movement pattern of the polarized light photons as they move toward the eye, one stream rotating clockwise for one eye, the other rotating counter-clockwise for the other eye. Something called a quarter-wave retarder makes sure the separate photon streams reach your eyes at the same time instead of "linear," the natural way polarized photon streams come at you, one behind the other. Each lens in the passive glasses is matched to read one of those polarized circular photon streams.

If that makes sense, maybe I understand this whole business better than I thought.

In all events, we have active 3D now because, since most of the filtering is in the glasses, manufacturing active 3D HDTVs could be done quicker and cheaper. Passive 3D sets, with filters built into the sets themselves, took longer to develop and were more expensive. Just how much more expensive we'll see at CES, but Vizio's $3,700 price tag isn't that much higher than comparable active shutter sets, and manufacturing volumes will likely drive the price down fairly quickly.

Passive pros and cons

Obviously, the best thing about passive 3D is the glasses. They're feather-light; they don't require power; they're pretty universal (it's unlikely, but some nimrod 3D HDTV maker may reverse the lenses in their glasses), which means you can throw a party and everyone can bring their glasses and you can afford to supply those who don't; they're cheap — Polaroid Eyewear's glasses will run around $30 compared to $125-$150 for active shutter glasses but anyone can and likely will make them cheaper — and passive sets will likely be bundled with multiple pairs; and, they can be curved, which means less ambient light leaks in your peripheral vision interfering with the image.

You'll also be able to use the passive 3D glasses in a movie theater, although you could end up in a tussle with a minimum wage usher demanding you return your own glasses, but we'll cross that bridge when we see it in 3D.

There are a pile of passive cons. First and foremost, passive 3D is only half resolution — 540 lines — to each eye. But broadcast/cable 3D is and will be half resolution unless bandwidth magically opens up or until 4K HD comes along later this decade, and there hasn't been a hue and cry about 3D quality issues from ESPN 3D viewers. The only loss will be the benefits of 3D Blu-ray, which is full HD to each eye. I'll be able to report on the quality differences once I have a chance to see 'em.

Your passive 3D viewing position also may be limited. Depending on the set, you may not be able to lie down and still see the 3D.

Why passive?

Why introduce a second 3D HDTV technology when the first one is failing miserably?
It's all Panasonic's fault.

Plasma, with its 600 Hz-plus refresh, is perfect for full HD 3D. LCD, with its inferior 240/480 Hz refresh rate, not so much. Panasonic has done an excellent job demonstrating 3D in stores and can offer a 3D Blu-ray of Avatar to purchasers. LCD makers, not so much. So for LCD makers, passive removes Panasonic's and plasma's natural full HD 3D advantage.

Yes, passive's half-resolution could be a problem, even if consumers perceive but can't actually see the difference. But in technology, convenience and price (the glasses, in this case) always trumps quality. Even though it's still pre-dawn for passive, I get the sense passive 3D will get a more positive consumer reception than active has, especially once cable carriers increase 3D programming. Plasma-based active shutter 3D HDTVs is likely to be relegated to a niche market, sort of the way 2D plasma is now to 2D LCD, unfortunately.

So, yes, tablet computers. Very interesting. But everyone has or wants an HDTV, which makes passive 3D a far more important CES story.

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