3D TV: everything you need to know

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CNET Editor

Ty is a journalist with 15 years experience in writing for IT and entertainment publications. He is in charge of the home theatre category for CNET Australia and is also a PC enthusiast. He likes indie music and plays several instruments. Twitter: @tpendlebury


3D has landed in a living room near you, but it's still a Pandora's box of questions.
(Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Many people saw Avatar in 3D at the cinema, and while impressed it seems they are reluctant to commit to buying the technology for their homes.

There are a number of reasons for this, but they include set-up cost, health concerns and the lack of content. In this guide we answer the most common queries and examine whether it's worthwhile getting.

This article will continue to be updated and expanded as more information becomes available. If you have anything to add to this article, feel free to leave a comment or vote in our poll.

Interested in buying a 3D TV? Then we round-up the latest and greatest 3D models here.

How does 3D TV work?

3D TV is a generic term for a display technology that lets home viewers experience TV programs, movies, games and other video content created with a stereoscopic effect. It adds the illusion of a third dimension, depth, to current TV and HDTV display technology, which is typically limited to only height and width ("2D").

A 3D TV or theatre screen showing 3D content displays two separate images of the same scene simultaneously, one intended for the viewer's right eye and one for the left eye. The two full-size images occupy the entire screen and appear intermixed with one another — objects in one image are often repeated or skewed slightly to the left (or right) of corresponding objects in the other — when viewed without the aid of special 3D glasses. When viewers don the glasses, they can perceive these two images as a single 3D image.

How a 3D image appears without the glasses

Here's what a 3D video game looks like without the glasses. (Credit: Jeff Bakalar/CNET)

The system relies on a visual process called stereopsis. The eyes of an adult human lie about 7cm apart, which lets each eye see objects from slightly different angles. The two images on a 3D TV screen present objects from two slightly different angles as well, and when those images combine in the viewer's mind with the aid of the glasses, the illusion of depth is created.

Every member of a family sitting around the 3D TV must wear glasses to see the 3D effect or the image on the screen will be distorted.

People who wear normal prescription lenses already can experience the full effect by wearing the 3D glasses too, which are designed to fit over an existing pair of glasses.

Can 3D televisions play regular TV?

Yes. There is a common misconception that 3D televisions will only play 3D content, but this is untrue. A 3D television will play DVDs, free-to-air TV, games and anything else you throw at it. It is a normal television. Its ability to play 3D content as well is what designates it as a "3D TV".

The Blu-ray 3D specification calls for all such discs to also include a 2D version of the movie, allowing current 2D players to play them with no problem.

In addition, TVs by Sony and Samsung and forthcoming models by LG feature 2D-to-3D conversion so you can watch ordinary content in 3D if you wish. Be aware that it's still in its early stages and very hit-and-miss.

When will I be able to buy a 3D TV that doesn't use glasses?

A lot of people are holding out for glassless 3D televisions, but we'll say this now: there's going to be a long wait. While devices such as the Nintendo 3DS are hitting the stores soon they are based on an old technology known as Parallax Barrier. This effect incorporates an overlay on top of the screen, which is divided by a series of slits guiding light to the left and right. To view the 3D effect your head needs to be in one set position, and this is fine when you are holding the device in your hand.

There is simply no way this can work in a lounge room: if one person sits in exactly the right spot they might see 3D, but the person sitting next to them won't.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is experimenting with face-tracking technology and a specially-shaped LCD screen that will deliver 3D to two people in a room. It uses a webcam set up behind the screen and LED lights in the base that fire depending on where your eyes are. As this is more of a projector than a TV it would involve a rethink of current technology and would probably be expensive as well. It will also only work at an an angle of 40 degrees from centre — by comparison many TVs can work up to 178 degrees.

How is the new 3D TV technology different from older 3D?

Most people are familiar with the old anaglyph method, where a pair of glasses with lenses tinted red and cyan (or other colours) is used to combine two false-colour images. The result seen by the viewer is discoloured and usually a lower resolution than the new method.

3D glasses

A pair of liquid crystal shutter glasses
(Credit: Panasonic)

The principal improvements afforded by new 3D TV technologies are full colour and high-definition resolution — most systems offer full 1080p for both eyes in the 3D Blu-ray system.

While some overseas models use a passive method as used in the cinema, all Australian 3D TVs require active liquid crystal shutter glasses, which work by very quickly blocking the left and then the right eye in sequence (100 times per second systems like Panasonic's Full HD 3D). The glasses sync to the TV via an infrared signal, and come with either rechargeable or replaceable batteries (typically good for 80 or more hours).

Why can't I use the glasses I got at the cinema?

Home and cinema technologies are unfortunately incompatible. Most theatres use passive polarised glasses, which means that the projector, and not the pair of glasses, does the majority of the work. With passive glasses costing a dollar and active ones costing up to AU$200 why didn't manufacturers just go for the cheaper option? Firstly, passive technology makes the TV itself more expensive and secondly it means that the resolution is halved. Most manufacturers have opted for full 1080p resolution with the unfortunate side-effect being crosstalk, or image ghosting. We are secretly hopeful that a backlash against expensive glasses will lead to a number of passive TVs being released next year.

What are some of the downsides of 3D viewing?

Unfortunately, not everyone can view 3D movies, as between 5 and 10 per cent of people suffer from stereo blindness. While they may have good depth perception, they cannot perceive the depth dimension of 3D presentations. There is some suggestion that you can "train" your eyes to view 3D, but stereo-blind viewers can usually watch 3D material with no problem as long as they wear the glasses; it simply appears as 2D to them. (Related: see TV industry turns blind eye to non-3D viewers' article.)

Most viewers of 3D suffer no ill effects after a brief orientation period (lasting a few seconds as the image "snaps" into place), but in others, 3D can cause disorientation or headaches after extended periods. Viewer comfort is a major concern of 3D content producers, because too much of a 3D effect can become tiresome after a while. Producers of 3D movies for children also have to account for the fact that children's eyes are closer together (about 5cm) than adults.

Do I need to buy new equipment to watch 3D?

In most cases, yes — especially when it comes to TVs. While there was a single, PC-reliant 3D Samsung plasma a few years back only 2010 televisions will be able to play back the latest 3D Blu-rays and games. As a 3D TV does a whole lot of processing behind the scenes it's not possible to simply fit 3D to an older TV — they're simply not responsive enough.

With one notable exception — the Sony PS3 — the answer for Blu-ray players is also "yes", you will need a new "3D Blu-ray" player. Sony says its game console will receive a firmware upgrade in the near future that will enable it to playback 3D Blu-rays.

Unless you use your AV receiver for switching between HDMI video sources, you won't have to upgrade to enjoy 3D Blu-ray movies. You can instead opt for a Blu-ray player with dual-HDMI outputs or forgo high-resolution audio (Dolby True HD or DTS Master Audio) that requires an HDMI connection to the receiver. If you do want to retain HDMI switching on a receiver with even a single 3D source (with the possible exception of the PS3), it appears that you will need to get an AV receiver that's HDMI 1.4-compatible. Numerous AV receiver makers have announced so-equipped 2010 models, including Onkyo, Pioneer and Sony, while 3D compatible home theatre systems are also coming this year.

HDMI cable

HDMI 1.4 cables are coming.
(Credit: Dong Ngo/CNET)

Can I use my existing HDMI cables?

At this point, it appears you can. We've heard conflicting reports from manufacturers, but the best information we have indicates that most current HDMI cables, including the inexpensive ones CNET recommends, will work fine with the new 3D formats. One caveat is that longer cables, say over 3 feet, might have problems. We recommend trying to use your old cables before spending extra on "high-speed", "HDMI 1.4-certified" or "3D-ready" HDMI cables.

Probably not for "Full HD 3D". Most TV makers we spoke with specified that to get full 1080p resolution in both eyes, all of the involved devices (player/source and TV, typically) need HDMI 1.4 connections. 3D TVs and players have HDMI 1.4, and most cable suppliers are offering compatible cables now.

What 3D content is available?

  • While the availability of 3D content is slowly growing, as we write there are four major sources:

  • Free to air
    The two broadcasters to show free-to-air 3D in Australia have been SBS (World Cup 2010) and Channel Nine (State of Origin). Both companies have used a specific channel set-up with the help of the government, in most instances called "Channel 40". If your TV can receive it, the channel appears after retuning as 3D Test or something similar. At present it shows loops of World Cup and Origin games.
  • Cable
    Foxtel was the first broadcaster to show in 3D with the Australia versus New Zealand match in mid 2010. At present it rebroadcasts channel 40 in select areas, in addition to ESPN 3D.
  • PlayStation 3
    While 3D movies are coming, several PlayStation 3 games will now work in 3D including Wipeout, Pain and the demo version of MotorStorm: Pacific Rift. More games are expected to follow.
  • Blu-ray
    The number of 3D Blu-ray players is growing but the number of 3D discs isn't. At present there is only one 3D Blu-ray disc available for sale, and it's not the one you'd think. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was released in July 2010, and it is soon to be joined by Open Season and Monster House. Unfortunately, big guns such as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland are tied in with manufacturers at release and won't be seen at retail till 2011. There are a number of discs available only with the purchase of players or TVs, and these include Coraline (Panasonic) and Monsters Versus Aliens (Samsung). No word on when these will be available separately.

Panasonic 3D TV

The Panasonic VT20 3D TV earned itself an Editors' Choice. (Credit: Panasonic)

What TVs are available, and how much do glasses cost?

We can foresee a time when all televisions ship with some form of 3D and it will be up to the user to buy glasses on top of this. At present there is a handful of models available with Panasonic, Sony and LG producing 3D TVs for the Australian market. Sharp is expected to release its 3D "Quattron" TV in the near future as well. We round-up the latest 3D TVs here.

Sony currently offers two pairs of glasses with its LX900 televisions, LG offers two with its various televisions, Samsung offers two and Panasonic offers one with its VT20 television. Prices range between AU$100 and AU$200 for a single pair.

Will 3D TVs work with all 3D formats?

Unlike Blu-ray versus HD DVD, there doesn't seem to be a major "format war" between the various methods for delivering 3D. All of the TV makers we spoke with specified that their upcoming 3D sets would work with the Blu-ray format. When we asked about other 3D formats, including ones that use side-by-side, checkerboard and top-and-bottom modes, and 3D found on current source devices like PCs using Nvidia's 3D Vision, TV makers that responded either specified their sets would be compatible or implied they would be by launch time. In short, compatibility shouldn't be a major hurdle for 3D TVs.

Is 3D TV any good or just the latest gimmick to get me to buy new crap?

The new 3D TV technology seen under the right conditions can be very impressive and definitely delivers a "wow" factor that will appeal to fans of immersive home theatre, gamers and other early adopters. Aside from screen size, the experience is very similar to what you'll see at the theatre.

But that screen size difference is huge, and final versions of 3D TVs might perform differently from demos. And we have no idea how home-viewing conditions like ambient light, seating distance, viewing angle and other factors, which figure less prominently into the theatre experience, affect 3D in the home.

Finally, when evaluating whether 3D TV is "any good", it's worth drawing attention again to the many issues described above and elsewhere.

And, of course, like any new technology (or product for that matter), 3D is in essence intended to get you to buy more stuff. Years of underwhelming 3D implementations and misguided marketing earns 3D more of a right than other technologies to bear the description "gimmick". Again, we recommend seeing 3D in the theatre under ideal conditions, then considering the differences between that and 3D TV in the home, before writing 3D off or becoming a fanboy/girl.

When this FAQ was first published in January 2010 we polled the six major TV makers that announced new 3D models — LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba — to help with some answers. We also gleaned information from enthusiast sites like AVS forum and the friendly folks at EngadgetHD.

Via CNET.com

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EjonB posted a comment   

I have a Sony 3D TV i recently bought. Do i need a 3D blu-ray player to play 3D movies or a normal Blu-ray player is suffice because the 3D TV will do the processing?


kamikaze posted a comment   

Most people have missed the point that Avatar was shot using a 3D camera that is different to all others, able to dynamically alter the depth of field, focal points and stereoscopic overlap, all done in real time as the footage was shot. The other 3D could well be poor in comparison, until James Cameron's seven years of camera development is universally available. The lenses moved in all directions to achieve 3D, and this cannot be achieved post-shoot. Credo to Cameron, he shot most of the movie footage himself.


Bryce posted a comment   

BIG Gimmick! I prefer 2D. and honestly, who wants to watch the "3Dfooty" with the lads and everyone has to wear those stupid glasses in the "perfect lighting conditions!" Not going to work!
Also did anyone see "3D clash of the titans" at the Cinema? Very Tacky!!!


mayobloke posted a comment   

Tech changes so much these days I will be looking at renting, with some rental agencies you can upgrade at 18months and actually have paid 10% less the entire purchase price. I am a great lover of owning my toys but I would prefer the latest tech and someone else worry about warranty


. . . posted a comment   

Unless you're in desperate need of a new TV, wouldn't it be worth waiting until pure OLED television come out? I mean, they use barely any power, so that shouldn't be a problem. What's the point in buying a TV everytime one upgrade comes out?
However, I have a feeling it's going to be years before a pure oled television will come out, with all these new features.


Kev posted a comment   

"So effectively this makes my 300+ Bluray collection obsolete"

Obsolete? I think you're being a tad overzealous.


Sean posted a comment   

I can't wait to see them to come out but what about home theater 3d projectors ive been looking at projectors for awile but it looks like i'll have to wait to see the home thearter projectors come out as well and i have seen on the net about 21 x 9 led backlit 3d tv's as well


dart posted a comment   

the Museum of Moving Images in Fed Square melbourne has 3D tvs that dont require glasses to see 3D. is this technology not suitable for mainstream 3D broadcasting / gaming?


Rob posted a comment   

Thanks JB, I meant to say if I want to enjoy the full 3D effect as stated in the article I would need to replace my library again, like you I had almost 700 DVDs, now I am down to about 300 and 300 Bluray, I have spend about $30K on my HT gear and have always enjoyed having the latest gear, this just comes to soon after making the change to Bluray, some upconverted DVDs do look as good as they Bluray version but others are just terrible, I am sure it will be the same with the 3D versions.


jb posted a comment   

No, it doesn't make your collection obsolete. You can still watch them in either 2D or converted 3D (as stated in the article) as the TVs can show 2D as well. People said the same thing to me about my 750 DVDs when I upgraded to BluRay. In the end I only replaced certain DVDs and was quite happy with 1080p upconversion on the rest.

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