This year, fashionable geeks, gadget lovers and that much-maligned endangered species, the ‘early adopter’, worldwide are expected to down tools, up wallets and head off to stores to purchase 3D televisions.

Maybe not quite yet, perhaps, as the first wave of products aren’t due until the middle of 2010, but anyone who’s anyone in consumer electronics circles should at least be girding their loins, readying their credit cards and firing off a warning SMS at bare minimum to their bank manager in preparation for the off.

The purpose of this article is to explain how this shiny new technology works, what content is coming and what you’ll need to view it, and why you’d want it in the first place, not necessarily in that order.

3D, THREE WAYS

There are several ways of displaying 3D content, but they are all work by presenting each eye with a slightly different image of the same scene. These ‘stereoscopic’ images combine in the brain, confusing it sufficiently enough to trick us into thinking we’re seeing real depth.

Attempting to create 3D imagery harks back to the mid-nineteenth century (over 160 years ago, for the mathematically challenged), with the first 3D anaglyph movie seeing the light of day in 1915. That’s before the First World War – if you’re American – and serves as a convenient segue into explaining how it all works.

It may be the first time you’re heard the expression ‘anaglyph’, but this refers to the first mainstream form of creating 3D television, by making you wear those horrible ‘red and blue’ cardboard glasses; remember them? Anaglyph technology forced the eyes to each view slightly different images by filtering colour and leaving your brain to overlap them for the three dimensional effect. But they were rubbish, really, and messed up all the colours.

Watching movies isn't the same with the new polarised 3D glasses.
Watching movies isn’t the same with the new polarised 3D glasses.

A new version of anaglyphs was needed, so enter ‘polarised 3D’. Using a similar concept, dual images themselves are polarised and simultaneously superimposed on the screen, then the viewer needs to wear polarised glasses that restrict polarised light and nudge the brain into creating a 3D image of it all. This is a much better technology as far as color integrity goes – and the lenses of the glasses tend to be of a uniform, less ridiculous, hue.

Sony has been using polarised 3D glasses in recent demonstrations but, confusingly, has moved to the other stereoscopic technology when announcing a summer release of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in 3D, launching with its first 3D-compatible Bravia televisions, such as its flagship 165cm LX900 model.

This technology involves originally capturing images with dual, ‘side-by-side’ cameras and back at home relies on the television itself controlling special ‘shutter glasses’ that you wear, sending images at 60 frames per second (50 in our PAL system) alternately to each eye, leaving it to your brain to combine the images, make sense of it all and produce 3D.

TAKING SIDES

Sony and Panasonic are in the ‘active shutter glasses’ camp, with each set to ship HD televisions this year complete with one pair of ‘RealD’ glasses. Samsung too, supports this tech with its DLP 3D TVs and the recently-announced LED and LCD 3D TV range, in 40, 46, and 55 inch models.

While clever, and a more active technology than polarised glasses, the need for the powered shutter glasses means they’ll cost a whole lot more than the three bucks or so you currently pay down at Hoyts; perhaps even 20 times more. Typically, your 3D TV will come with a pair, maybe two, but everyone else in the room will need to bring their own.

If the hype is to believed, 3D is going to be big.
If the hype is to believed, 3D is going to be big.

And that’s not the main problem, the way we see it. The flashy ‘lifestyle’ photos these companies put out featuring slick, guffawing youths can’t hide the fact that you look pretty dumb with the glasses on your face, even if you go the extra, pointless mile and make the frames vibrant, ‘cool’ colours (yes, we’re talking to you, Sony). As one wag said, only a welder would call them beautiful.

Likewise, Panasonic encouragingly refers to the specs as “as a stylish and lightweight pair of active-shutter glasses” but, frankly the only people who aren’t going to feel like complete tools wearing these things are those folk who are already accustomed to looking that way – those braying packs of road cyclists who litter the roads at the weekend, for instance, or business-suited chappies who still think the Bluetooth headset worn on the ear while in the supermarket mark them out as rather dashing.

Hopefully, this will all change someday soon, as with all ‘interim’ new technology, and we won’t need the silly specs at all. Indeed, Philips has already hinted that it will have such TV sets by 2011. And, of course, if you don’t want to always watch in 3D, you will be able to disable the feature on your 3D-capable TV and still be left with a top-notch 2D unit.