Thursday, January 06, 2011
Thinking about 3D TVs
3D TVs are cool in a way. Or at least, they are supposed to be. A recent discussion on the Puck Podcast got me thinking a bit more about this technology. But frankly, I can’t really get excited about them, and I certainly won’t be buying any any time soon. Here’s why:
The theory of 3D TVs is pretty awesome. Clearly, a 3D picture is much more exciting than a 2D picture. And I get that for a wide range of things, the theoretic experience is awesome. On the Puck Podcast, the technology was discussed in relation to sporting events. Seeing a hockey game (or most other sport for that matter) in 3D is pretty cool in concept. Ideas like putting a 3D camera into the hockey goal to see how quickly the puck travels and all that is certainly something I can get excited about. And beyond that, watching movies like Avatar in 3D is obviously an experience people crave.
But the problem is that all these awesome visions of how 3D should and could be, really aren’t brought to live with today’s approach to 3D TVs.
The Problem with the Glasses
First of all, it starts with the problem of the glasses. You have to wear glasses that are heavy and awkward. And while you are wearing these glasses, you are not doing anything else either. You have to be 100% committed to watching TV. I hardly ever do that. Most of the time, I work while I watch a hockey game, or I eat something, or I browse through a magazine during the commercial break. Not with 3D glasses on you aren’t!
And of course, this works the other way too: I often end up yelling “did you see this goal?!?” and people come running to see the replay of the goal (or I rewind my TiVo to show them the goal again, but I would need a different DVR to do so, and I am not aware of a lot of good ones that do this at this point… but I may not be completely up to date here…). But without their glasses, they won’t be doing that, will they? Like I said: 3D TVs are an all or nothing proposition.
Note also that due to how the glasses work, every other light source in the room appears to flicker. It is an extremely distracting effect that you will not notice when you check out a 3D TV in a store or at a friend’s house, but you will certainly notice it a few days after you bought your own 3D TV. So you better keep your eyes glued to the TV at all times.
I have heard people say to them glasses are not a problem, because they already wear glasses. Oh yeah? So you will be wearing 2 sets of glasses at once now?!? That’s going to be a great experience. Not! I guess you could wear contacts, but I am not even sure how that really works since the distance to the 3D glasses is so short (maybe someone can comment on this post to enlighten us on the success level with 3D glasses and contact lenses). And just because you are used to wearing glasses doesn’t mean you are used to wearing huge and heavy glasses like the 3D ones are. And they are not especially shaped or sized to your head either. So the experience of wearing 3D glasses is certainly going to be much worse than wearing regular glasses.
Not to mention the price of the glasses! At about $150 each, your main expense for your new TV will likely not be the TV but the glasses, unless you always watch by yourself. If you are planning a Super Bowl party with 10 of your best friends, get ready to shell out $1,500 just for the glasses. And then how thrilled are you going to be to have a bunch of drunk dudes wearing $1,500 worth of high teach gear?!?
I also heard people refer to public places that might show events in 3D. “Surely, there must be a sports bar that has the 3D sets” people say. Well, while I do not doubt that there will be some sports bars that are going to use exactly that as their main selling point, I doubt there will be many. These sports bars will be “concept bars” that cost a buttload to equip. Not just will they have to buy the 3D TVs, but they will also have to buy a few hundred sets of goggles. Granted, they will probably get a discount, but still, it is a huge expense. And again: How happy would you be to give these goggles to your patrons? A bunch of drunk people who tend to drop stuff and walk all over it and scratch them, and dip them into the beer, and so forth. You will have to buy new glasses on an ongoing basis. I just do not see that happen as a widespread thing. Not to mention that it might be extremely tempting for a lot of people to slip these glasses into their pocket on the way out. So the bar would also have to invest in a good security system (or perhaps tether you to a wall… a nice experience that would be!). Besides, I wonder what it would be like to be in a room with 20 3D TVs all showing 3D content that appears to be overlapping in the room ahead of you. I have never experienced this, but I would imagine it would be extremely odd.
A Theater Experience? Popping Out or Falling In?
But the glasses aren’t the only problem really. When people think of 3D TVs, they are thinking of the experience they had in an iMax 3D theater. You sit in your stationary chair in a fixed position, and you watch the amazing imagery with stuff popping out of the screen, seemingly hovering right in front of you. And surely, that is the experience we expect at home.
Well, the reality is, it isn’t like that at home. For one, most 3D TVs create an image that doesn’t so much “pop out” of the screen, but the illusion generally is one of there being “a tunnel into the screen” or a “falling in” effect. And besides, most people’s brains are smart enough to figure out (after a few hours) that the illusion really just is an illusion, and that things are not quite right. The image then look “a bit odd” and although you can’t quite put your finger on it, the image quality really isn’t what you’d expect it to be either. It just all seems a bit “wobbly” (which may also be why people may be getting headaches watching 3D TVs). So while 3D TVs generally create a very high quality image (like all modern HDTVs, really…), that is not necessarily the subjective impression you get when watching them.
Also, while in a theater, you are entirely stationary in your seat, with little room to move, this is not the case in a home setup. I tend to move around a bit, even while I am on my couch. And often of course, I may move in and our of the room to get something or I move to a different seat or shift into a different position laying down. I really do not know anyone who sits as stationary at home as they do in a movie theater. Just give it a try: Sit there without moving much for an hour or two and see how realistic and fun that is!
So what is the problem with moving around anyway? Well, the thing is that 3D TVs of course do not create a 3D scene. They just show a picture that is shot stereoscopic (with 2 cameras, basically, that are slightly off, just like your 2 eyes create 2 pictures that are slightly off) from a fixed point (one could really say our current technology is 2.5D). This works as long as the viewer doesn’t move and assumes to be at the position the camera is. But here’s the problem: Let’s say you are looking at a box straight on. What would you expect to see when you move to the left? Correct! You would expect to see the left side of the box. But that doesn’t work with 3D TV. Instead, you can move as far to the left as you want and you still see the box straight on. This creates an effect that is contrary to how three-dimensional environments work in the real world, and it appears as if your TV moved the picture deliberately, anticipating your every move, in an attempt to outwit or annoy you. I find this effect to be at the very least annoying and at worst to be disorienting and nausea inducing. And it certainly destroys the 3D effect.
So in short: To enjoy a 3D TV, you need to be 100% committed to setting yourself up exactly the way you need to be to get a good 3D illusion. You also need to be committed to paying a lot of money. And you need to expect to either get headaches (for some people) or at least have a much more exhausting TV viewing experience (for the rest of us) that will not allow you to watch 3D TVs are leisurely and long as you do a regular TV. But on the upside, you will probably get a more muscular neck from wearing the heavy glasses. Keeping your head perfectly still will more likely result in stiffness and soreness than muscle growth though.
3D Without Glasses
But aren’t there 3D TVs without glasses? Yes, there are some announcements around that (just Google for it). But while these TVs have the advantage that they do not require glasses, they also only work if the viewer sits in just the perfect position. So no Super Bowl party there, unless you all want to sit on each other’s laps. Besides, many of the other problems still apply or are even made worse (like the need to be stationary and the odd movement effect). Also, from what I can tell, this gets us back into territory with picture quality that is not very good, and the overall viewing experience is not very good (yet?).
So I am not going for it! I think the concept is cool, and I think at some point, we may be able to achieve 3D viewing that really turns the vision we all love into a reality. But the point is: We are not there yet. Yes, I love the idea of seeing the puck being shot at me from within the goal and me seeing that at a high level of quality and comfort. But alas, that is not yet available. And we are a long way off, because the current approach will not get us there, unfortunately. But once the day comes where we overcome these limitations, I am going to be among the first to buy!
Currently, 3D - at least to me - is a specialty technology that is best experienced in a movie theater.
Posted @ 4:38 AM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org) -