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Consumer Electronics Show: Is 3-D hot or not? [Updated]

January 8, 2011 | 10:16 am

The conventional wisdom going into the Consumer Electronics Show this week was that the major manufacturers were shifting their focus from 3-D TVs to Internet-connected sets, given that 3-D sales hadn't lived up to last year's suffocating hype. That notion turns out to be misleading; set makers seem to have no less enthusiasm for 3-D than they did before. There's just not as much hype.

Part of the reason is that connectivity is far ahead of 3-D as a phenomenon in consumer electronics. Samsung executives said that an estimated 2.5 million Internet-enabled TVs sold in the U.S. last year, with expected sales increasing to 9 million in 2011; the numbers for 3-D TVs in the U.S. are about 1 million in 2010, 6 million in 2011.

Seemingly every set maker is adding more connected models to their lineups than 3-D models, in part because the latter are frequently available only on larger screen sizes. And Internet-enabled TVs themselves represent just a fraction of the connected-TV market. Sony Corp. Chairman Howard Stringer said that more than 50 million TV screens in the U.S. alone will be Internet-enabled this year, either directly or through set-top boxes and game consoles.

The industry also got carried away with increasingly bullish projections for 3-D sales last year, with Samsung predicting up to 4 million in 3-D TV sales based on Amazon's initial sales. As it turned out, sales were roughly where the Consumer Electronics Assn. predicted they would be a year ago, said James Sanduski, senior vice president of home entertainment sales for Panasonic Consumer Electronics. And as low as those sales may seem in relation to the early buzz, they're still significantly higher than initial sales of HDTVs and Blu-ray players. One reason: The initial premium consumers must pay for 3-D in a set ($300 to $500, Sanduski said) is much smaller than it was for high definition ($1,000 to $1,500).

Still, some significant hurdles remain to mass adoption of 3-D in the home. The biggest of these may be the paucity of 3-D programming. A few new sources were announced this week, including a long-awaited 24-hour cable channel of 3-D nature programming by Sony, Discovery Channel and Imax; online 3-D video-on-demand from Vudu; a switch from part-time to full-time programming on ESPN's 3-D channel; and 3-D streaming by Verizon to Panasonic Blu-ray players for customers on its fiber-optic network. But the key breakthrough will come when 3-D reaches basic cable, said Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, Panasonic's chief technical officer.

He predicted a gradual migration of 3-D programming from pay-per-view tiers to premium cable channels and sports networks. A premium 3-D tier is "a model that makes sense" for pay-TV services, he said, adding that there could be enough programming this year to create a block of a dozen 3-D channels.

To attract the masses, though, "3-D must be on a regular, sustained basis," Tsuyuzaki said. And it will have to come from a cable network, he said, because the broadcast networks and local stations can't do 3-D over the air. They'd have to continue their 2-D broadcasts at the same time, and they don't have the airwaves needed to transmit both signals simultaneously.

Another issue, Sanduski said, is potential consumer confusion over 3-D glasses. Numerous CES booths featured glasses-free 3-D TV screens, typically as prototypes or proofs of concept. But executives from across the industry warned that the technology had a long way to go before it could be commercialized and built into the big screens consumers are demanding for their living rooms.

Updated, 4:35 p.m.: Toshiba disagrees -- strongly -- about the market readiness of glasses-free TV. It had fully functional prototypes on display of three glasses-free products that it expects to begin selling late this year on in early 2012: 65-inch and 56-inch LCD TVs and a laptop. All rely on screens that emit separate, angled beams of light to the left and right eyes to create the illusion of depth.

Carrie Cowan, product manager of Toshiba America's digital products division, acknowledged that the glasses-free "parallax" system doesn't produce images that pop off the screen the way rival technologies do. The system also doesn't offer a wide, uniform viewing angle; instead, the 3-D images are visible at certain spots in front of the screen. Viewers in other positions may see a 2-D image or a blurry one.

The point of the exercise is to create a 3-D option for consumers who simply don't like the idea of watching through glasses. The company also is developing ways to overcome some of the drawbacks of the parallax system -- for example, the laptop uses its built-in webcam to track the position of the viewer's eyes, shifting the display's 3-D sweet spot to match the viewer's movements.

Another potential complication for consumers is that set makers' united front over the type of glasses to use -- active shutter glasses -- started to crack, with at least one major manufacturer (LG) announcing sets that will use lighter, less expensive polarized lenses. Others, such as Panasonic and Samsung, remain devotees of the shutter glasses, despite the added expense.

[Updated, 5 p.m.: Toshiba also plans to offer 3-D TVs that use polarized lenses.]

Hyunsuk Kim, senior vice president of Samsung's visual display research-and-development team, laid out the most commonly cited shortcomings of the passive-lens system: It cuts the picture resolution in half (delivering a different set of 540 lines to each eye simultaneously, rather than alternating between 1,080 lines for the right eye and left eye); adding polarization to the glass on the TV screen increases the cost of the set; and the polarized glass darkens the picture.

"Without resolving those problems, Samsung will never adopt" the passive-lens approach, Kim said.

3-D TVs are playing catchup to their smart brethren, but Panasonic President Shiro Kitajima predicted that the gap will narrow steadily in the coming years. By 2014, Kitajima said, connected TVs are expected to comprise up 42% of sales, while 3-D will make up almost a third.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Photo: An attendee wears Intel Corp. InTru3D glasses at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 7, 2011. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg