The Future of TV is 3D. Where's My Advil?

Last Updated Jan 11, 2010 1:49 PM EST

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is part World's Fair, and part Star Trek convention: it's full of nerd gear that is futuristic just for futurism's sake.

But look for patterns, and you begin to notice where the big electronics makers are dumping most of their R&D money. If devices by companies like Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Toshiba are any indication, 2010 will be so chock full of three-dimensional home theater gear that it almost smacks of conspiracy.

Samsung, for example, showed off a weedy flat-panel TV with 3D support powered by a power-sipping LED backlight (below). Netbook maker MSI announced it would be producing a line of gaming notebooks with discrete 3D graphics built-in. Panasonic showed off an incomprehensibly large 3D plasma television measuring 152 inches -- or about 12 feet diagonally. Vizio -- which sells more TVs in the United States than any other company, thanks largely to Wal-Mart -- is doing its part to fill out the market with its own massive, inexpensive 3D sets. (A 72-inch 3D HDTV from Vizio will go for just $3500 come August.) Toshiba even showed off a TV it says will convert conventional 2D picture to 3D and up-res that content to glorious 1080p quality.

Three-D content is not far behind. Discovery Communications announced it has teamed with Sony and IMAX to launch a dedicated 3D television network this year, and ESPN, which is controlled by Disney, announced last week that it would begin airing an ESPN 3D network for live events in June of this year. DirecTV was also in Las Vegas touting the rollout of three new 3D satellite channels. The Blu-ray Disc Association, a consortium of companies making Blu-ray hardware, also announced this week that it had finalized a 3D format for Blu-ray players like this one from Sony -- also unveiled at CES.

If this all seems a little sudden, well, it is. The proliferation of 3D has been abetted by an unusually quick format-alliance between Sony, JVC, Samsung, Toshiba and Panasonic, which have all agreed to adopt 3D technology from RealD as standard. (All that quarreling over Blu-ray and HD-DVD seems to have tuckered out the major players.)

But is this stuff ready for primetime? I think it's fair to say that in-person demonstrations at CES produced as many skeptics as believers, and some of the technology's limitations are real deal-breakers. Some attendees reported lasting headaches after just a few minutes of viewing, while others were put off by the uber-dorky shutter goggles required by technologies like Nvidia's GeForce 3D computer game system (below).

Nvidia's 3D goggles: are you nerdy enough?More parsimonious solutions -- not involving goggles -- are on the horizon. One Carnegie Mellon researcher showed in 2007 that technologists could improvise one such solution using nothing more than an ingenious piece of home-baked computer code and a Nintendo Wii controller. (In the demonstration below, he does use LED-equipped glasses, but such a gizmo could easily be shrunk to tie-clip form factor.) Lo and behold, Apple recently filed a patent application for just such a technology.

Some tech pundits have predicted that 3D-TV be a commercial flop -- an industry-driven phenomenon that will prove "dead on arrival." That's a frightening prospect for the executives (and shareholders) behind major electronics players, almost all of whom are deeply invested. But the success of 3D-TV would be an equally frightening prospect for consumers. Referring to immersive HDTV, David Foster Wallace (1997) said in one of his effusive essays: "We will, in short, be able to engineer our own dreams." Dazzling, yes, but threatening as well: "[T]he better the tech, the harder we're hooked" (p.73-75).