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3D TVs are eye-popping, but they have their drawbacks

January 7, 2010

It's all about 3D at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, and believe me: there's no shortage of eye-popping, head-ducking 3D demos on the show floor. It's all quite impressive, but look a little harder and you start to see the flaws.

I've spent a good part of my time at CES running from one massive exhibitor booth to another, starting with Panasonic and moving on to such big names as Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba, and Sony.

I've tried on more 3D glasses than I care to count (they're all of the battery-powered "active-shutter" variety, by the way, complete with LCD lenses that rapidly open and shut in sync with the alternating left-and-right images on the HDTV screen), and overall, I'm happy to report that the effect is, indeed, very similar to what you'll see in a theater.

Yes, the 3D image does seem to stretch behind the screen, with moments that deliver a sublime sense of depth, such as, say, the ballroom floor during the "Alice in Wonderland" trailer or even the foreshortened spinning wheel in "Wheel of Fortune" (yes, someone bothered to shoot an episode in 3D, I kid you not). There were also plenty of "whoa!" sequences, like a CGI dude with a ball and paddle who repeatedly zinged the ball right up to my nose.

That said, I did notice a few key annoyances that could be a problem for anyone who buys one of these new sets for their living room.

Glare
Granted, lighting conditions on the CES show floor aren't the best ... but the same goes for most living rooms, frankly, and I found the glare on glossy HDTV screens (particularly the plasma variety) to be very distracting, putting a serious dent in the 3D effect. Ideally, of course, you'll want to have your 3D HDTV in a completely darkened room (such as the makeshift theater where Panasonic was showing off its gargantuan, 152-inch 3D plasma set). Barring that, though, you'll at least want to make sure there aren't any glare-inducing light sources in the area.

Flicker
The latest generation of 3D HDTVs and their accompanying active-shutter glasses are designed to have refresh rates so fast that you won't notice any flicker at all; nevertheless, there were still moments when I definitely did notice a slight but distracting flicker, particularly during brightly-lit scenes. The effect was worse on some sets than others (I won't call anyone out quite yet, given that it's so tough to judge on the CES show floor), and it's possible that proper calibration could reduce the problem. Still, it's worth noting.

Weird-looking 3D
This next issue has more to do with the 3D sources on display here at CES than with the 3D sets themselves, but it could end up being an issue with the upcoming 3D TV networks and programming that are being touted this week. While the 3D trailers of "Avatar" that are prevalent at the show look amazingly realistic, some of the other demos -- of, say, skaters on an ice rink, underwater sea urchins, football players bashing heads, and so on -- look like the same, cheesy cardboard cut-outs that you might see in a kid's plastic ViewMaster. The problem, I'm guessing, is that those producing these odd-looking 3D clips are trying to exaggerate the 3D effect to get the most eye-pooping visuals, but the effect looks plain weird -- not anything like real life at all, but a strange, fake-looking and oddly flat 3D pseudo world. While accomplished filmmakers like James Cameron seem to be going out of their way to go for a more subtle, realistic 3D effect, my fear is that upcoming 3D programmers might be temped to go with the flashy, phony look instead.

So-so looking 2D-to-3D conversion
Both Samsung and Toshiba are promising on-board 2D-to-3D conversion on their sets, and as you might expect ... the effect only looks fair, at best. I saw a demo clip showing airborne views of a forest, a soccer match, a gushing creek, and so on, and the visuals looked ... well, they had what I'd call "pseudo depth," conveying the sense that the image was stretching behind the screen but not of a real 3D landscape. It's not terrible by any stretch, but don't expect an on-the-fly 2D-to-3D conversion of "The Empire Strikes Back" or Anderson Cooper to look anything like the real 3D thing.

Pricey 3D glasses
I touched on this issue in passing a couple of days ago but it's worth mentioning again: these "active-shutter" 3D glasses that come with all of the 3D TV sets I've seen today won't be cheap. No one is discussing pricing quite yet, but I've heard that these IR-enabled, battery-powered glasses could cost somewhere in the $100 range, and at best, you should only expect to get two pairs of glasses with your new 3D TV. (Sony has committed to two pairs of active-shutter glasses for its top-of-the-line 3D models, while Panasonic will only give you one; Samsung hasn't announced its policy yet.) So if you were having thoughts of a 3D Super Bowl party with, oh, a dozen friends or so, and let's say the glasses end up costing only $50 a pop ... well, that's a cool $600 worth of 3D glasses.

Again, it's really tough to get an accurate grip on the latest 3D TVs in just two hours in a jam-packed convention center, but I have to say ... my impressions are decidedly mixed. While this is definitely the year for selling 3D TVs, whether it's the year for buying one is an open question.

So, what do you think: Are you sold on 3D TV? On the fence? Keeping your distance (har har)? Fire away below.

Source: YTech

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