The movie and electronics industries have been pushing hard to ignite a lust for 3D entertainment in the bosom of America, but the jury is still out. While new technology can produce striking three-dimensional images in a variety of formats, movie-goers are increasingly choosing the standard version of a flick over the more expensive 3D extravaganza. Even though games offer some of the best 3D experiences, disappointing sales pushed Nintendo to lower the price of its 3D handheld gaming console drastically. And AT&T dropped the ESPN 3D channel from its U-verse TV service last year, citing consumer disinterest. So, with a plethora of 3D TVs, phones, game consoles, cameras and camcorders beckoning, which 3D products make sense, and which ones aren’t quite ready for prime time?
The cornerstone in-home 3D experience is clearly watching movies and other programs on TV. Since no magic will retrofit your old set and endow it with 3D capabilities, we’re talking about a substantial investment. You’ll probably want to buy a new 3D Blu-ray player too, and upgrade your cable or satellite service. Before you even think of reaching for your wallet, ask yourself a very important question: What 3D programming is available?
Even at this stage, roughly two years after the full-court press began, not a whole lot of 3D content flows via cable or satellite, and none comes on broadcast TV. ESPN has a 3D channel; Sony, Discovery and IMAX offer the 3net channel; Panasonic has the n3D channel; and you can watch Pay-Per-View 3D movies, along with some one-off sports events. Among signal providers, DirecTV has the most 3D content, with n3D, 3net and ESPN 3D plus Pay-Per-View movies. Comcast has two channels plus Pay-Per-View and Time Warner has just ESPN, pay-per-view and the occasional 3D sports coverage. The DISH satellite network has only Pay-Per-View in 3D, while regional cable providers offer a smattering of 3D programming. You could argue that when HDTV arrived not much HD content was available either, but that format certainly had more momentum than we’re seeing for 3D.
That leaves 3D Blu-ray discs to pick up the slack. Basically, if a movie is released to theaters in 3D format, it will end up on 3D Blu-ray. You’ll also find assorted nontheatrical 3D content on disc, such as nature documentaries (a particular IMAX specialty) and a Cirque du Soleil show. Sadly, the 3D movie that enthusiasts want to see most, Avatar, is tied up as a
Panasonic exclusive, available only with the purchase of the company’s 3D Blu-ray players (or for about $100 on eBay). Blu-ray 3D discs will play in 2D on standard Blu-ray players, but you’ll need some new hardware if you want the full effect. The exception to the new-player rule—Sony upgraded the software in its PlayStation 3, already a top-notch Blu-ray device in addition to its gaming capabilities, so it now handles 3D as well.
The big winners in 3D video are carefully crafted animated and computer-generated content. That’s what makes Avatar such a treat in 3D: James Cameron has lavished extraordinary artistic skill on his 3D endeavors and set a standard that few others have approached. The flying sequences in How to Train Your Dragon are another benchmark for 3D video. You feel the swooping and soaring sensation far beyond what you experience in the 2D version.
On the other hand, watching sports in 3D is a lukewarm experience. When high-def television launched, sports was the go-to selling point for the new sets, and it can’t be denied that HDTV’s level of detail makes watching your favorite game a much more in-your-face experience. The best 3D video, though, requires careful attention to camera angles, and quick-cut editing doesn’t hold up well—it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to each new scene in 3D. However certain sports moments do gain oomph in a 3D presentation—watching a pitch approach the plate from the catcher’s point of view, for example.
But 3D TV does more than just TV programs and movies—it can also immerse you in three-dimensional videogames and computer games. And as with animated films, 3D games offer a level of visual control unavailable in live-action subjects. Game creators can carefully craft the presentation of cars whizzing through the environment in a racing game or the ammunition heading towards you in a shooter, so your response is instinctive and emotionally involving.
The leading light in 3D gaming is Sony’s PlayStation 3—no surprise, given Sony’s company-wide push to sell 3D as must-have technology. Most 3D PlayStation titles I’ve tried enhance the gaming experience rather than merely dangling visual gimmicks in your field of view. Whether you’re swimming through the bowels of a sinking ship or holding onto an ascending airplane’s landing gear for dear life, the Indiana-Jones-like Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception gains a visceral rush in its 3D incarnation. While racing through the postapocalyptic world of MotorStorm Apocalypse, there’s a sensation in your gut after jumping off a ramp and plummeting toward the ground that just isn’t the same in the 2D version.
Other systems aren’t as promising. Xbox 360 is capable of playing 3D games but, in practice, only a few titles are available. The Nintendo Wii has no 3D support.
But another option for 3D gaming exists: a 3D-equipped laptop, which can also be used to watch 3D Blu-ray discs and stream online video. I took the high-powered Dell XPS 17 3D (starting at $900) for a test drive, and was quite impressed. The 17-inch screen is bright and sharp, and both movies and games looked great when viewed with the included 3D glasses.
Unlike video games, which require specially programmed versions to deliver a 3D effect, most stock computer games can be played in 3D right out of the box—the software uses the code already in place to create separate right-eye and left-eye images. And if you own a 3D TV, you can connect the XPS 17 via an HDMI cable and pipe the picture and sound from the computer to the big-screen set.
We live in a three-dimensional world, but until recently we’ve only been able to capture it in 2D via conventional snapshots and videos. That’s changed, though, with the introduction of cameras, camcorders and even cell phones that let you record the world around you in three dimensions, and play it back on a 3D TV.
For 3D still photos, the best available option is the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3, which has a $600 list price but can be found online for $300-$350. Some other cameras can produce 3D images, but they rely on different work-around solutions that either require panning the camera while taking a shot, or clamping on an add-on lens to the front that prevents you from using the camera’s zoom feature. Fujifilm did it right, though, with two separate lenses and two image sensors. As a result, the camera is a little bulky for a point-and-shoot, but taking 3D photos (and video, for that matter) is as effortless as grabbing a 2D snapshot. And you can see the 3D effect, both before you press the shutter and while reviewing your handiwork, without wearing special 3D glasses on the 3.5-inch LCD. Or, if you prefer, you can connect the camera to a 3D TV using an optional HDMI cable.
The controls are easy to use, allowing both fully automatic and manually adjusted shooting, but the results are hit-and-miss. Making the special effect effective while composing a 3D image will require some trial and error. Even when you get the hang of it, most snapshots that aren’t heavily orchestrated won’t have the foreground/midrange/background distance arrangement that makes 3D images pop. This limitation is even more noticeable in video (the camera shoots in the 720p high-def format).
Happily, the FinePix Real 3D can also shoot 2D stills and video, so you don’t have to carry two cameras. And the two-lens two-sensor configuration allows some cool photographic options in 2D, like shooting both a telephoto picture and a wide-angle shot at the same time. Bottom line, though, the point of carrying this relatively pricey, relatively large camera is taking 3D images. It’s the best choice on the market for that purpose, but it’s hard to imagine anyone using the 3D features for their day-in, day-out photographic needs.
If you’re serious about shooting 3D video, JVC has you covered with the Everio GS-TD1 camcorder (list price $1,700). Like the Fujifilm camera, the JVC boasts two lenses and two sensors, but the JVC records video at the higher 1080p resolution standard. You get 5x zoom capability in 3D mode (10x when shooting 2D), and a glasses-free 3.5-inch 3D touch-screen. While I’m not a huge fan of touch-screen controls on cameras or camcorders, it is convenient to touch a spot on screen (someone’s face, for example) and have the camcorder quickly focus on that point. What’s more, you can set the GS-TD1 to maintain focus on that chosen person or item as it moves around on-screen.
As for controls, you can just point and shoot with good results, or tweak the shutter speed, exposure, white balance and more, whether shooting in 3D or 2D. As for 3D video quality, it can be impressive if the scene has the kind of depth to create a convincing effect. Unfortunately, you’d never know how good the video looks judging from the built-in screen, which is hard to view sharply from any angle. Connect the GS-TD1 to your 3D TV and the difference is enormous. When shooting, I quickly decided to set the screen to 2D display, even though filming in 3D. A point in favor of the GS-TD1—you can use it to shoot 3D stills as well as video, albeit at a modest 2.9-megapixel resolution. That option is entirely missing from the high-end 3D camcorders offered by Panasonic and Sony.
Overall, if you’re serious about shooting 3D video, the JVC GS-TD1 is your top choice in the well-to-do consumer market. But what if you’d like to experiment with 3D without breaking the bank? Then Sony’s 3D Bloggie HD camera might be your pocket-size pal, priced at $250. Its lone image sensor is tiny and no match for the JVC, but it does shoot 1080p video in 3D or 2D, 2-megapixel 3D stills and 5-megapixel 2D photos. The controls are distinctly barebones—you can’t even zoom the lens—and the 2.4-inch glasses-free screen is kind of small. Still, if you own a 3D TV and want to see the family on screen in a more in-depth style than an ordinary 2D camera, the 3D Bloggie HD is a fun, reasonably priced choice.
So we have an assortment of cameras and camcorders at our disposal for capturing 3D—but we live in the age of cell phone photos and video. Two high-tech phones ship with 3D screens that don’t require you to wear glasses to get the effect, and dual lenses for recording in 3D. The LG Thrill (AT&T) and HTC Evo 3D (Sprint) are both Android phones, with very similar features. Each has a big 4.3-inch screen, takes 5-megapixel stills and 720p video in 3D and 2D. A few points favor the LG phone, though. For one, it uses a standard HDMI cable to connect to a 3D TV set—the HTC requires both the HDMI cable and a hard-to-find MHL adapter. The LG also comes with several 3D games and applications, plus a 3D on-screen menu with definite show-off value. Finally, there’s the question of price: at this writing, the LG Thrill 4G is selling for just $50, the HTC Evo 3D for twice as much.
No matter which 3D photo or video option you choose, you can’t expect your results to be as dramatic as what you see in a professionally shot 3D movie. As mentioned earlier, even with a pro at the helm, animation works better than live-action most of the time. And with consumer equipment and amateur shooting skills, 3D looks more like good old View-Master discs than Avatar.
The Joy of Sets
So we have limited 3D programming, some good-looking games, and homemade 3D photos and video with a kind of gimmicky feel to them. Is this the formula to make you chuck your current HDTV and buy a new 3D set? Not very likely. But let’s look at the 3D TV acquisition question in a different situation. Say you want to buy yourself a shiny new HDTV set—should it be a 3D model?
In that situation, 3D becomes a lot more attractive. For starters, you’re likely to hold onto a new TV for many years—at least five, and more likely 10 or more. 3D content may be a little thin now, but the breadth, depth and quality could certainly improve over the next decade. Many of the best HDTVs on the market today include 3D capability anyway, and buying the highest quality set you can afford is always a good strategy when you’re going to be using it for years and years. As for the cost for adding 3D to the purchase of a set, it’s tough to get an apples-to-apples comparison, since this feature is just one of several differences you’re likely to find from model to model. I asked HD Guru Gary Merson (editor-in-chief of hdguru.com) for a ballpark figure, and he came back with a $150 estimate.
Which brings us to a technological crossroad. There are two different 3D television technologies, using different types of glasses. At this point, while we’ve seen small-screen devices that work without wearing special glasses, the attempts to adapt the technology to large-screen TV sets have yielded unimpressive results.
The first sets to reach the market required active shutter glasses. In these systems, the TV displays different images in rapid sequence—one for the right eye, one for the left. The glasses synchronize with the set and electrically black out the wrong eye, so the left eye is covered when the right-eye image is shown and vice versa. The result: a full-resolution 1080-line high-def picture in 3D. The downside? The glasses are bulkier than ordinary eyeglasses, expensive (roughly $100 each) and require recharging. Often 3D-capable TVs that use active shutter technology come without any glasses included, to keep the sale price down. The glasses also darken your view of the screen.
The alternative technology uses passive glasses—the same kind you get at a movie theater. There are no sequential images here. Instead, the picture is drawn with alternating horizontal lines down the screen, in a kind of right-eye, left-eye sandwich. Glasses with differently polarized lenses sort out the two images for the viewer. Here you get lightweight, comfortable glasses with no electrical power required, and while they cut down screen brightness some, it’s not as severe as with active shutter glasses. What’s more, compatible TVs usually come with several pairs, and extras are available for $10–$20 each.
So where is the rub with passive glasses technology? You’re cutting the horizontal resolution in half by alternating lines. This can lead to a jagged appearance, especially if you look carefully at straight diagonal lines in an image. Even experts who spend their entire professional lives peering at TV screens and scientifically analyzing the images are split on how much this resolution difference offends the eye, and as you’d expect, picture quality varies from model to model among sets using the same technology.
For test purposes, I borrowed a Panasonic Viera TC-P50GT30, a 50-inch set using active shutter technology, and a 47-inch LG LW5600 that relies on passive glasses. The Panasonic carries a $1,900 list price but can be found for around $1,200 without glasses, while the LG lists at $1,000, with four pairs of glasses included.
The Panasonic is a plasma display, and delivers a superb 2D picture. Given my druthers between plasma and LCD TVs, I generally prefer plasma—the colors look richer, and fast movement is always perfectly smooth. When it came to watching 3D, on the other hand, the disadvantages of active shutter were front and center. The glasses were reasonably comfortable compared to other active shutter models I’ve tried, and image sharpness was very good. The darkening of the picture was disturbing, though. I found myself fiddling with the brightness control when shifting between 2D and 3D content, and that’s not great.
On the LG set, if I turned my persnickety reviewer’s eye to the picture, I could spot some flaws and artifacts when viewing Blu-ray movies and playing some PlayStation 3 games. These problems were much less apparent if I took a few steps back from the set. At a reasonable viewing distance, I felt the minor shortcomings were outweighed by the comfortable glasses and the noticeably brighter image.
Each format has trade-offs, and different users have different priorities. Purchase online if you like, but particularly with a 3D set, you should definitely try before you buy. This is especially important for the 5-10 percent of the population who don’t see the 3D effect at all, no matter what the display device. Others find the effect disturbing—one of my best friends can only watch for a few minutes at a time without having the first signs of a headache set in. And for some people, despite the loud rah-rah of movie producers and TV manufacturers, 3D simply leaves them flat.
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.