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3D at IFA: Duels, Distribution and Data

Watching the camp Second City Television show in my youth, I laughed at the show’s Monster Chiller Horror Theatre segments, in which John Candy, as the evil Dr. Tongue, would create “3D” by swaying a cat cradled in his arms toward and away from the camera — a high technological bar indeed.

Nevertheless, at the IFA conference in Berlin last week, Sony and Panasonic emerged as leading advocates for the adoption of 3D television based on a more modern approach; each had its own spin. Sony relied on its knowledge of movie making via Sony Pictures (now integrated into its “make.believe” corporate branding along with Sony Ericsson) whereas Panasonic noted that it had a production facility in Hollywood for mastering Blu-ray.

Sony also won showmanship points by distributing RealD glasses and showing 3D clips during its press conference. That’s fair game in my book even though the technology it plans to introduce in the home is actually the same as Panasonic’s, which uses active shutter glasses that Panasonic was showing behind closed doors on its 150″ plasma. Passing through those doors, I noticed the impact of the 3D effect when there is high contrast between foreground and background, lending credibility to its claim that plasma is well-suited to 3D. (It also bodes well for OLED, which both Sony and Panasonic are pursuing.) While the Avatar clip actually fell a bit flat (pun unintended), there was a confetti scene so realistic that I felt I could reach out and grab it. Panasonic also answered Sony’s eye-popping Gran Turismo cockpit scene from its press conference with its own impressive driver’s-eye footage.

Sony and Panasonic are also driving forces behind Blu-ray, and another piece of the puzzle to roll out at IFA was that the Blu-ray 3D spec is coming soon. Indeed, 3D will absolutely need content, and as was noted during the Blu-ray Disc Association press conference, 3D content will be distributed in many ways. But even that may not be enough to overcome some of the hurdles such as wearing glasses. That is why Philips has decided to sit back and sell 21:9 TVs that I can’t believe wouldn’t find an audience in at least the custom installer market in the U.S.

As my colleague Paul Gray at DisplaySearch (whom I ran into on the show floor) notes, 3D  may not close the gap in TV pricing declines, but I still see the question of Blu-ray’s arrival is more of a when (and certainly within the time frame of seeing the effect without the glasses) than if. 3D has particular value for movies and sports, two TV genres that helped drive HD adoption.

But one area that 3D could enhance that hasn’t seen much attention but where it could provide much value is in the oft-neglected user interface, where it could help in swimming through the overwhelming flood of metadata that consumers will need to navigate. Hillcrest Labs has already shown a quasi-3D user interface using its Loop remote dubbed HoME, but it strikes me as the tip of the iceberg as to what companies could do with real 3D capabiliies. Without significant redesign, the prospects of finding personal relevant video in the age of broadband video are frightening, even more so than Count Floyd.