(At Panasonic’s IFA booth: People using 3D glasses and monitors to watch the live women in front of their faces.)
If you determine the big story here at the IFA tech show here in Berlin based on raw square footage in the booths, there’s no question what it is: 3D TV is everywhere.
The massive booths of consumer-electronics giants such as Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and Toshiba are dominated by 3D. There’s 3D that requires pricey active-shutter glasses. There’s 3D that uses cheaper passive specs. (There’s even 3D from the Fraunhofer Institute that doesn’t need glasses.) There are 3D games and 3D Blu-Ray players and 3D soccer broadcasts and 3D LCD sets and 3D plasmas and 3D projectors and giant walls made out of 3D screens.
Sony even projected its big press conference (hosted by CEO Sir Howard Stringer and including a performance by pianist Lang Lang) in 3D on a giant screen, expecting the reporters on the scene to don glasses to watch presentations which were happening right in front of them, live and in person.
All the 3D at the show had one thing in common: It’s lousy.
I’m not saying it’s all equally lousy: Some of it (especially at Panasonic’s booth) was at least somewhat better than I expected. Much of it was unusually blurry–some of the sets that required glasses looked only slightly better than Fraunhofer’s no-specs technology demo. None of it rose to the level of being good, and I came away thinking that the level of hoopla was bizarre given the lackluster products being hyped.
3D TV occupies so much IFA real estate because the electronics industry thinks that teeming masses of people are going to be willing to buy new TVs and don uncomfortable, expensive glasses in order to watch three-dimensional content. I think consumers are smarter than that. I think will prove to be a fad–or, at least, a mistake.
Let’s take it as a given that issues like proprietary glasses, a dearth of content, and shortsighted deals that limit particular movies to specific manufacturers’ sets will go away over the next year or two. Let’s also assume that 3D picture quality improves rapidly and ghosting, blurriness, artifacts, and other visual issues go away. 3D still won’t make TV more realistic–at best, you get a sort of 2 1/2-D effect that (as my friend Steve Wildstrom reminded me) is akin to an oversized View Master scene. It doesn’t make it easier to suspend disbelief–it’s an ongoing reminder that you’re watching a piece of photographic trickery.
Perversely, the 3D showings of live events at the show, such as Sony’s press conference, served mostly as a useful reminder of how artificial this “3D” is. In person, Sir Howard and Lang Lang looked like people; on the 3D screen, the versions on the jumbo 3D screen resembled humongous puppets.
As a medium, 3D remains remarkably self-trivializing. Virtually nobody who works with it can resist thrusting stuff at the camera, just to make clear to viewers that they’re experiencing the miracle of the third dimension. When Lang Lang banged away at his piano during Sony’s event, a cameraman zoomed in and out on the musical instrument for no apparent reason, and one of the company’s representatives kept robotically shoving his hands forward. Hey, it’s 3D–watch this!
Now, new technologies are certainly allowed to call attention to themselves. (1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first popular talkie, is mostly a silent film–except when Al Jolson breaks out in song.) But 3D isn’t new. It’s existed for sixty years in one form or another. And almost all of it is still merely a needy, attention-grabbing novelty, barely more dignified than Smell-O-Vision.
This 1981 SCTV sketch parodied 1950s 3D, but it could have been referring to most of the content I’ve seen at IFA:
The more 3D TV I saw at the show, the more irritating it all got. I’ve been writing about technology for twenty years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an alleged Next Big Thing that’s left me so cold.
Could 3D TV redeem itself? Sure. It would need to work without glasses, for one thing. It would have to be at least as crisp and easy on the eyeballs as high-definition 2D, and it would have to simulate three dimensions rather than multiple layers of flat paperdoll-like objects. And you’d have to be able to watch it without giving any thought whatsoever to the fact that you’re watching 3D TV.
What do you think the chances are we’ll see anything like that at any electronics show in 2011, 2012, or even 2020 or 2030?
(Full disclosure: I participated in two panels at IFA and the conference covered my travel costs to be here.)