CES: 3D comes home

With all of the talk about 3D here at the Consumer Electronics Show, it's important to underscore that the 3D being shown here is not akin to the 3D you'd get with anaglyphic red-and-green glasses folded up into a Cracker Jack box. What's being shown as the future of 3D is frankly all the more impressive (in some cases, surprisingly so, when done well) and it has the potential to change how we consider reproduced images.

After experiencing most (although not yet all) of the 3D implementations (3D HDTVs coupled with 3D Blu-ray players playing a selection of 3D Blu-ray content) I have to say that Panasonic's plasma panels with active-shutter glasses produced the most convincing image quality. And, after ten minutes of viewing, I hadn't developed a headache using the company's 3D glasses— something that, unfortunately, happened with some of the other implementations I tried.

Before you ask, no, I'm not going to say which 3D implementation—too many variables such as the overhead lighting environment of a booth and the design of the specific glasses used in the demo can adversely affect a person's reaction to the 3D display, and I want to give companies the benefit of the doubt. These displays were here at a tradeshow, and a lot can change between now and the third quarter of the year, when most manufacturers plan to launch 3D televisions.

Back to the Panasonic 3D plasma display. In this iteration, which showcases the technological advantage that fast-responding plasma panels have over LCD technology, both live action and animated Hollywood content looked bright and solid (as opposed to a sense of opaqueness and transparency, which I got from watching the same content on Sony's LCD-based 3D HDTV. I was particularly struck by one content loop, though: An ordinary movie scene that was spectacular in its ordinariness (a conversation between two characters in an outdoor setting, there was nothing about the scene that conventional wisdom would have said screamed for a 3D treatment). This scene stood out to me for its realism, for the sense of depth that enveloped the characters and indeed the entire scene.

Who needs 3D?

Many observers have wondered about whether we "need" 3D for the ordinary stuff, newscasts, sitcoms, and the like. I'd posit that while we don't "need" it, at some point in the future, 3D will become as natural as 2D video (and still) images are for us today. At some point, we will expect that level of realism and depth perception in our images.

I liken the difference to this example of still photography: Consider two images, one shot with a prime lens at 200mm, another shot with a telephoto lens at 200mm. The former image will have more depth perception, while the latter will end up looking a bit flattened and crushed, because it's a zoom lens.

To a degree, that's the difference between 3D and 2D for ordinary applications.

Best of CES

The best 3D display I saw at the show, Sony's tech demonstration of a 24.5-inch 3D OLED LCD, was perhaps the best example of this increased depth perception provided by a 3D image. That display required glasses, too; and it was almost astounding in its color, realism, detail, and depth. Not surprisingly given the slow progress to mass market of OLED displays, Sony didn't announce any plans to bring this television to market.

This 3D future I speak of isn't here yet. Nor will it be next year. The challenge, of course, is for us to get to a point where you don't need active shutter glasses keyed to a specific television in order to reap the benefits of a 3D image, and that's what you'll need today in order to watch 3D content.

But when that future comes, I believe we'll look back at some point and wonder about those quaint two-dimensional images we used to watch. That's because 3D will become the new normal, and everything else will be like your grandmother's faded black-and-white photographs in a shoebox in the attic.

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