It seems you can't go to a trade show these days without being shown someone's 3D TV hardware. So what exactly are the display manufacturers planning, and when will consumers in Europe be able to buy it? Paddy Baker puts himself in the picture.
There are some new technologies where the development path is clear, standards have been agreed and timescales are set in stoneÖ and some that aren't. Talking to various TV manufacturers, it soon becomes clear that 3D TV falls resoundingly into the latter category. Not only are various different types of technologies being pursued, some companies are hedging their bets by backing more than one kind of 3D display technology.
For instance, LG points out that at CES at the start of this year, it showcased some 3D TVs that required glasses, and others that did not. Their spokesperson added: "Our key focus is currently on LG passive technology, which has a filter inside the panel that creates a double image and requires polarised glasses for the production of 3D imagery." It says that its first 3D ready TV "will most likely require glasses".
JVC's 3D LCD TV uses a passive glasses-based solution that involves circular polarising technology. The screen is coated with filters that polarise alternate scanning lines in perpendicular directions - delivering a different image to each eye through the glasses. The technology is compatible with two different formats for 3D video input: line-by-line (with left and right images on alternate lines) and side-by-side (where images are compressed to half-width and stored alongside each other in the picture signal).
Panasonic's 3D offering, by contrast, makes use of active shutter glasses, along with its NeoPDP plasma technology. "The 3D panel works with high-precision active shutter glasses that receive an infrared control signal from the television to precisely sync the active shutters with the left- and right-eye images shown on the PDP," the company explained to us. "The panel also incorporates a crosstalk reduction technology allowing for minimising double-image (ghosting) that occurs when left- and right-eye images are alternately displayed," it added.
Sony says its 3D technology will incorporate frame sequential display and active-shutter glass systems. "High frame rate (HFR) technology will enable the reproduction of full HD high-quality 3D images. At this point, Sony is considering combining HFR, FHD and active shutter glasses," the company told us. However, it could not comment on the glasses that will be used when its 3D LCD televisions are launched.
Firmly in the no-glasses camp is Hitachi, whose 3D TV solution uses multiple projectors along with a lens sheet, which produces directional rays. "A light field is produced through the directional rays, giving full parallax vision. This way, viewers from multiple angles can view the 3D image and will each see a slightly different image according to the angle from which they are viewing," said Hitachi.
So, when do the companies say that they will launch their 3D systems in Europe? JVC already has a 46in 3D screen out in the market, which it showed at IBC in September. However, with a £6,520 price tag, it's aimed at professional markets: post production, larger broadcasters, public displays and medical and research applications. The company doesn't have a date for when the technology will get its consumer debut.
Panasonic believes it will be the first in the industry to launch in the European consumer market. It is looking to carry out a simultaneous launch across Japan, Europe and North America in 2010. However, it has no fixed launch date.
LG plans to launch a 3D ready TV in the first half of 2010. On the outside this will look the same as a conventional TV set, but will have different technology inside and will most likely require glasses. "We have showcased 3D LCD, plasma and projector technologies and will look to launch at least one of these next year in key markets, such as the UK," the company added.
Sony was a little less precise: it told us it aims to introduce 3D-compatible Bravia LCD televisions to the domestic market some time in 2010. Hitachi said it has no estimated launch date for 3D TV technology in Europe, for either business use or consumer use.
Given the uncertainty that surrounds the market currently, we also wanted to know what our manufacturers thought would need to happen elsewhere in the market before widespread 3D TV technology became a reality across Europe.
Not surprisingly, availability of content was flagged up as a key issue. "We have the appropriate technology available to display the content, but it is the content that is required for consumers to realise the benefits of 3D," said LG.
Sony pointed to the ongoing digitalisation of cinema as a driving factor in the development of 3D TV. "As 3D cinema becoming increasingly popular, Sony expects that customer's demand for 3D entertainment in the home will grow," it told us.
Panasonic expanded on this theme: "We are anticipating the expansion of 3D movie content and are strengthening our activities to promote this, hence our work with Twentieth Century Fox on [James Cameron's forthcoming] Avatar, but we welcome the expansion of the 3D industry as a whole, and games will likely be a key component of this," it said.
Some drew comparisons with the way that availability of content drove the growth of the Blu-ray market. But Blu-ray itself will also a factor in driving 3D. Panasonic said out that "3D Blu-ray Discs will be a key factor to establish the technology in the market", adding that once the Blu-ray Disc Association has finalised the specification for Blu-ray on 3D (which could be as early as December this year), this will "ensure a common platform for all involved parties to build on."
There are also technical issues to be tackled at the broadcast level, including, as
Hitachi pointed out, "a need for world-wide standardisation of the video format and broadcast format for 3D."
And we shouldn't forget, as JVC mentioned, there needs to be commercial availability of sets! It's a self-evident point, but with no-one in this article able to give a tighter window than the first half of 2010 for the launch of their display products, the timeline for the adoption of 3D by Europe's consumers is far from clear.
Overall, however, our manufacturers are confident about the future of 3D television, which will not merely be confined to the home. As LG put it: "Soon, consumers will be able to experience the full benefits of 3D in shopping centres, retail environments, and at their local pubs." But how many different pairs of glasses will they need, I wonder?