3D TV was all over the Consumer Electronics Show, but it's not going to restore the fortunes of hardware makers just yet.
The first '3D ready' high-definition televisions (HDTVs) go on sale this year. At January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas most display makers were vague about launch dates but Matsushita's Panasonic division did commit to getting its VT25 plasma series into US shops during Spring and content will be available from day one.
Panasonic itself is supporting a 3D channel from US satellite operator DirecTV, factual broadcaster Discovery Communications is linked with Sony and IMAX to launch another, and the Blu-Ray Disc Association agreed a 3D standard for packaged HD media late last year. In the UK, Sky could soon offer 3D transmissions that may include live broadcasts from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Alongside some impressive albeit brief demos, the success of Avatar in cinemas and the display industry's need to freshen its range, these factors made 3D the star of CES. But the TV makers are not sure of its success in the near term. Like most industries, consumer electronics longs for a product to lead it out of the economic doldrums. But anyone who says 3D will lead the way is seriously over-hyping the technology.
Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research for the US Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), notes: 'We found, while visiting member companies, that many have held back products during the recession.'
The market for 3D
Gadget magazines and the blogosphere descend on CES as a cameraphone-armed mob in search of this year's sexy gadgets. But this is a common misinterpretation of how CES works. It may have 'consumer' in the title, but it remains a trade show that serves not only to promote what will fill shelves this year, but also to pump-prime retailers for products that may take three, four or five years to reach large volume. The serious OEMs and their suppliers are positioning 3D in the second category; the CES itself sees 3D displays only reaching 25 per cent of annual US HDTV shipments by 2013.
'It's common to have a technology come here [to CES] for a big launch and get a lot of coverage, and then the year after everyone's asking, 'Hey, what happened to...?' But that's not actually a surprise ' it's how the market works,' said Roger Quero, technical marketing manager at AMD's graphics division. 'People forget that, for most successful products, you have the early adopters, then it slows and things move into the much bigger volumes after that.'
The display market is fast maturing in the US and western Europe. Many people have bought a flat panel for the living room and growth has switched to secondary, lower-cost screens for the kitchen, bedroom or elsewhere. Consequently, the real goal for 3D is to get mainstream customers to think of the technology as an important additional feature for their next main screen.
Lifespan of a TV
Sony, Panasonic and the other big display players also hope that it will increase the frequency with which we replace our TVs. In the era of the cathode-ray tube, a set lasted seven years on average. In the widescreen era, that dropped to five years. If 3D can shave off another year or two, it will be a hit a very big hit and it doesn't need to achieve that goal in 2010 or even 2011.
This time lag is not an issue for the technology suppliers either,eager as they may be to get plenty of their chipsets into new-generation screens. They face their own hurdles, although they are scaling them at a fair clip.
For example, one immediate design challenge has been that the move to 3D has entailed a shift for designs of display silicon from the 130nm process node to 90nm so that the chips can incorporate high-speed SerDes technology to handle the traffic needed to provide separate left and right-eye images at a resolution of 1920 1080px travelling to a screen at a rate of 60 frames per second.
'But, right now, the technology we can offer is more robust than the display customers typically need,' says Quero. 'There are challenges but they are achievable.'
Rival chip developer NXP Semiconductors has much the same take. 'We are ahead of the customer, and obviously that's where you want to be,' says Wim Braun of its technical staff. Indeed, NXP had a demo at CES that addressed another of what had been seen, even until quite recently, as a potentially huge stumbling block for broadcast 3D, and that illustrated just how effective a job silicon and software engineers are doing to stay on top of the game.
In almost all its broadcast flavours, 3D HDTV is based on alternating frames feeding each eye separately. To do this, a pair of 'active shutter' LCD glasses synchronises with the display, imperceptibly blacking out one of the lenses according to which frame is on display.
What NXP has addressed is a problem that arises because, in their native form, both the left- and right-hand frames will have the same timestamp but are shown to viewer consecutively rather than simultaneously. Even this miniscule mismatch can make moving objects appear out of position once your brain processes the images. The effect during coverage of a football game could make a pass swerve in ways that defied the laws of physics. However, NXP can now process the images to effectively reposition the object. And that earns a very big 'problem solved' rubber stamp, because, as with most other TV innovations, live sports is set to be a 'battering ram' for 3D.
There are, however, other concerns that must be fully addressed before the drive for mass market acceptance begins in earnest. First, there are the active glasses. The type sold by graphics chip specialist nVidia a package including both one pair of glasses and an emitter to synchronise the image retails at around $200. For individual gamers, that may not seem too high a premium, but for a typical family of four sitting down to watch 'G-Force', it's a deal-breaker.
You can bundle glasses with a display or as Nvidia is doing with the PC game from Avatar some kind of software special edition, but they still raise the price. For general sale, the consensus is that a set of four glasses should cost or add no more than $100. Substantial economies are needed.
One trend that will gather pace for TVs in 2010 is the 'apps' model,which has served the iPhone so well, spread to other displays.Some of this will be driven by the smaller screens on devices such as Amazon's Kindle, Apple's rumoured ipad and other tablet computers fuelled by AMD, Intel and Nvidia. However, there is also a push to put apps on TVs. Panasonic's 3DTV will also have Skype. Video rental services can now be streamed directly to Ethernet or Wi-Fi-enabled displays and you can access Internet radio. All that is just the beginning. In this context, 3D is simply another option, there on every new TV for you to decide whether to use.
The rush to embrace 3D is not just be about 3D, but rather the idiot box getting smarter and smarter overall.
For a review of some of the top gadgets from this year's CES, turn to p80