3-D: Give It Some Time

Remember when a groundbreaking new technology didn’t come out every three years? Of course you don’t because you were born in 1990. But supposedly that time did exist, and people had crappy electronics for a long time and were miserable. You’ve probably just been telling yourself that you’re a hipster for having a tube television, which is a good move.

However, if you’ve been to a Best Buy or any other big-box electronics store in the last few months, you’ve no doubt been subjected to the hard sell of 3-D television. Actually, since you’re most likely a college student, you’ve been pointed in the direction of the $299 Vizio or Insignia TV, but nonetheless, 3-D is the big buzzword right now in home entertainment.

So what do you think about it? Chances are you’re ambivalent about it or you don’t care for it. A Nielson survey from last year found that people have gotten hung up on the particulars — 57 percent have a problem with the glasses alone. The only demographic that is totally enthralled (as expected) is the hardcore videogamer segment.

I’m a huge nerd and spend my weekends reading Home Theater Magazine and Stereophile so I’m an atypical example — or at least on paper I should be. Yet I, like most consumers, have a number of issues with this next-gen technology.

The most interesting thing about reading these magazines and being an audiophile / videophile to me is that the hobby is subject to its own canon, myths and preference trends like any other hobby. For instance, there still exists a school of thought that maintains a two-channel stereo system is better than a multichannel audio system for video playback. I KNOW, right? Please bear with me.

Much in the same vein, there is a much larger group of videophiles that have sworn on 3-D television (at least for now). An easy argument to make is that there isn’t a lot of native (shot in) 3-D content or programming that is available at the moment. The amount will likely increase, but if adoption falters, it may not.

Also, those glasses are a pain for multiple reasons. Obviously they are less than ideal if you just want to hang out and watch TV without looking like the Terminator. However, the glasses actually block a lot of light from the TV — which either means that your 3-D picture is going to be a hair darker than your 2-D picture, or even if it is just as bright as your 2-D picture, that means that the lamp or LED backlight is working extra hard and will likely die sooner than on a conventional 2-D TV. And the glasses are expensive! They might get cheaper with time, but quality optics can only get so cheap. And there will always be a time where you have seven friends and six pairs of glasses, or one of the glasses didn’t charge because you didn’t plug it in all the way and so on and so forth. Imagine always having enough charged Bluetooth headsets for everyone at your apartment and you’ll understand the expense, impracticality and annoyance of maintaining a fleet of 3-D glasses.

The main question that a reader of this article is probably looking for is: should I get a 3-D TV? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t yes/no simple but it boils down to a wholehearted maybe/probably.

The main reason people are likely buying 3-D TVs right now is because it is a roughly $200-$300 additional investment over the purchase price in future-proofing your television for the next 10 years. However, talk to the people who bought HD-DVD players in 2007 (like me, as mentioned in these very pages before) and ask them how that investment panned out. Even though most companies have appeared to settle on active shutter glasses as a standard, some companies will come out with 3-D televisions that use passive glasses. Passive glasses make a compromise in 3-D video quality in exchange for inexpensive glasses (the resolution is reduced in 3-D mode, but the glasses are similar to those cheap ones at the movie theater). The bottom line is that investing in a new technology is a safe but not always economical bet. Just because one format looks set in stone doesn’t mean it will be — and no standard lasts forever.

I embarked on a quest last summer to see what was coming out after active-glasses 3-D to see how much longer this technology was going to be around. While I was unable to formulate a death date for 3-D TV, there are a number of display technologies that are in development that will make current TVs look antiquated and afflict you with the common, “1-Year-Old Apple Computer syndrome,” in which you look way less cool than your friends.

The next logical move for TV companies will be to come out with glasses-free 3-D TVs. It is being researched by all of the big boys, and mark my words it will come out sooner than later. The Nintendo 3DS console, with its glasses-free 3-D display, should be proof positive that the technology is in the pipeline.

But what about after all of this 3-D nonsense dies down? Look for larger resolutions than the 1920×1080 “1080p/i” HD standard at the moment — 4K televisions will at least double the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the picture (there isn’t one standard for the resolution yet). Further down the road, 8K TVs will have over 17 times the amount of pixels that a 1920×1080 TV has today. 10K TVs are also in development. Ironically, all of these televisions and projectors will probably cost at least $100,000 when they come out.

And that’s just the amount of pixels. Current backlighting technology uses fluorescent lights or LED lights. The misnomer of “LED TVs” makes my skin crawl every time I see it because there have only been maybe two true LED (or OLED) TVs that have ever existed commercially. A true LED TV has an LED light for each pixel, instead of one big LED light backlighting a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). (Take a breath, we’ve officially entered Nerdville.) This allows for staggering contrast ratios and fantastic motion rendering. The proof of concept Sony XEL-1 was only an 11-inch OLED display and cost over $2,000 a few years ago, but OLED TV should be coming to the masses in the near future. The Sony Style store in ritzy South Coast Plaza had a demo of an XEL-1 when it came out, and it was by far the best picture I’ve ever seen anywhere.

In short, unless you’ve got a stack of cash burning a hole in your pocket, perhaps hold back on a 3-D TV for now. Look for a really good 2-D TV, and if it happens to have 3-D built in look at it as a “plus,” not a “must-have.” Think of how dumb your glasses will look when we all have holographic TVs in 2025 (I’m not kidding). Perhaps more importantly, be happy with what you already have. There are a number of cheap (or free) tweaks that can make the TV you own look better than you thought possible.

Michael Boileau is a fifth-year political science major. He can be reached at mboileau@uci.edu.