By Harry McCracken | Saturday, September 3, 2011 at 1:11 am
[At Panasonic's booth, IFA attendees use glasses to view 3D images of the women performing right there in front of them.]
Last year, I attended the IFA consumer-electronics megaconference in Berlin. The exhibitions of the big manufacturers were utterly dominated by 3D TVs. All that blurry 3D hurt my eyeballs, put me in a bad mood, and prompted this rant.
This year, I’m back in Berlin for IFA. There’s still scads of 3D, but it’s not quite as omnipresent as last year. Whether companies are losing interest or simply recalibrating their expectations to something more in line with consumers’ level of interest in this stuff, I’m not sure.
Is 2011 3D TV better than 2010 3D TV? Yes, at least a tad. Last year, the most pleasing 3D I saw was at Panasonic’s booth; this year, their demos struck me as being even a little better. (I like to make fun of the demonstation shown at the top of the post, but the displays showing 3D TV versions of the performing ladies were some of the crispest active-shutter 3D I’ve seen.)
I also liked LG’s huge booth, which was almost entirely devoted to passive 3D TV, a technology that’s just starting to give active-shutter serious competition. Passive 3D uses cheap glasses like the ones at movie theaters, not the unaffordable electronic ones required for active 3D. To my eyes, the best LG sets delivered picture qualiy in the same ballpark as decent active-shutter sets. And when an LG hostess saw that I wear eyeglasses, she handed me clip-on 3D lenses rather than glasses–and boy, they practically brought tears of joy to my eyes. For the first time in my life, I was able to see 3D without forcing one set of glasses over my own glasses. Much better. (Movie theaters back home in the U.S.: Get these clip-ons!)
In theory, the show’s biggest 3D news was probably Toshiba’s launch of the 55-inch ZL2, its first big set based on the glassses-free technology I saw in experimental form back at CES in January. The technology has improved since then, but you could tell that it requires a controlled environment: Toshiba showed it to only three attendees at a time, on seating squished up right in front of the set in a darkened room. Even then, most of the stuff we saw was distressingly gritty-looking.
(Did I mention that the ZL2 will cost 8000 Euros, or about $11,500?)
I came away from all this feeling like the people most excited by 3D TV are the ones trying to sell it to consumers. Even at its best, it adds severe image defects: blurriness, graininess, dimness, or some combination thereof. It’s still really a two-and-a-half dimensional effect that doesn’t actually make anything look more like real life. It remains most impressive for gimmicky moments–basseballs coming right at you, people inexplicably throwing buckets of water at the camera–that exist only to show off 3D.
My best guess is that 3D is going to rapidly became something that’s just there. It’ll be built into your next TV, won’t cost anything extra, and will be available if you want it and invisibile if you don’t. I hope it continues to improve, but I don’t expect any gigantic breakthroughs that make the experience radically better.
For now, I think that good 2D HD gives an effect that’s much, much closer to real life than any 3D. If all we had was 3D and 2D was invented in 2011, we’d regarded it as a breakthrough.
[Disclaimer: I spoke at an IFA panel, and the conference organizers covered the cost of my travel.]