New HDTVs May Soon Be Obsolete? Thanks a Lot, 3D

Just bought a new flat-panel HDTV for Christmas? Enjoying that new Blu-ray disc player? Guess what? They're already obsolete. Everything may be going 3D.

Later this week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a slew of companies will be pushing what they hope will be the next big thing in TV: 3D movies and games — even new 3D HDTV broadcasts.

The only problem is that none of the equipment currently in stores and living rooms will be able to display, say, a 3D Blu-ray disc of "Avatar" or any of the forthcoming 3D broadcasts. Consequently, it will likely be several years before the technology becomes popular — if at all.

The push for 3D entertainment is currently focused on four areas: new Blu-ray discs, new television displays, games, and live broadcasts. Companies pushing 3D range from the likes of Panasonic and Sony to FujiFilm, Technicolor, Mitsubishi, LG Electronics, and reportedly DirecTV.

The first 3D products will likely come in the form of new Blu-ray disc players that conform to a new standard. The new players will spin discs at a higher speed and stream what are essentially two separate video feeds, one for each eye to create the 3D effect. The Blu-ray Disc Association claims each of the video streams will be at full 1080p HD resolution so that there will be no loss of sharpness or image detail compared to current Blu-ray movies.

"However, we're telling people they'll need to buy a new player," says Andy Parsons, a senior VP at Pioneer USA and spokesman for the Blu-ray Disc Association. According to the association, the good news is that Sony's PlayStation 3 can be upgraded via software to work with the new 3D discs. Everyone else will have to buy a new player, but they should all work with any 3D-capable HDTV, whether it's an LCD or plasma panel or a set based on DLP chips. Unfortunately, you'll still need to buy a new TV to get that 3D capability.

A 3D HDTV must display images at a rate of at least 240 Hz, for example. Some current sets can already do that, but they lack the circuitry to combine the separate video streams that are used to trick our eyes into seeing a three-dimensional picture.

Among the major set manufacturers, Panasonic seems furthest along in its 3D plans. The company has demonstrated the best-looking, most realistic 3D video yet on its plasma televisions. Panasonic plans to start selling the sets in 50-inch and larger sizes as early as this spring. The TVs display two separate HD video streams, rapidly flipping back and forth between the two. Switches between images from the two streams occur so quickly that viewers see it as one solid picture. However, in order for you to see the 3D picture, you'll also need a special pair of glasses.

The glasses aren't like the cardboard goggles that cost less than a dollar and are used in most theaters. That approach lowers the picture resolution of a home movie, and thus reduces the image sharpness. So Panasonic's technology (and similar technology used by Sony and others) uses glasses with timed LCD shutters that are electronically synchronized with the TV's display. Such glasses made by XpanD and others cost $50 or more, although a Panasonic spokesman pointed out that buyers would get at least one pair of glasses with the purchase of a new TV. (Large families may balk if they have to spend an additional $200 to enjoy family movie nights in 3D.)

While tech addicts will be able to buy new 3D disc players and TVs later this year, it was assumed by most industry analysts that live 3D football games or episodes of American Idol wouldn't be available for several years. There's no broadcast 3D standard, for example, and cable companies are already stretched to capacity trying to deliver HD channels; currently, 3D is beyond their abilities.

Satellite broadcasters appear to see 3D as a new opportunity to gain customers, however.

DirecTV launched a new DirecTV 12 satellite just before New Year's with the stated purpose of offering more HD channels to its subscribers. But several leaked reports claim that the company will announce plans to use the satellite to broadcast the first 3D HD channel in the U.S. as early as this March. Whether the rumors turn out to be true — and whether DirecTV can deliver on the promise — remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the success of 3D movies like the record-breaking "Avatar" is encouraging consumer electronics companies and movie studios that the future is in 3D. So far, no company is saying how much more the new disc players or televisions will cost, but you can be sure that all of this new technology will cost you more.