3D has already made a big splash over the past year. With movies such as Avatar (which made $2.7B at the box office worldwide), Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans taking viewers from the traditional 2D experience into the 3D realm, 3D has proven that it’s more than just a gimmick or novelty. When applied correctly, 3D can greatly enhance the traditional viewing experience by immersing the audience in the on-screen content.

As you’re reading this, some manufacturers have already released their first generation 3D HDTVs, just in time for the FIFA World Cup in June (parts of which will be broadcast in 3D). But the current method employed to create the 3D experience in the home differs from that in the theatre and has many potential buyers confused.

To enjoy the 3D experience at home, you’ll need more than just a 3D HDTV. For starters, you’ll need a 3D source such as a 3D Blu-ray player or a 3D-capable cable or satellite set-top box. Some providers have promised to release firmware upgrades for existing cable and satellite boxes to enable 3D playback. Other boxes may have to be replaced with new models. Existing Blu-ray players cannot be firmware upgraded to provide 3D playback, with the exception of the PlayStation 3. In a home theatre setting, a new AV receiver with HDMI 1.4 connectivity will also be required, and to guarantee compatibility between components you may also need to pick up HDMI 1.4 cables (although high quality HDMI 1.3 should work in most instances). This will make 3D at home a harder sell since many consumers have already invested in a high-definition setup, making a complete overhaul for 3D an expensive proposition. Get ready to delve down the rabbit hole because unlike watching a 3D movie in a theatre, the technology for home 3D is not quite as simple.

The perception of three dimensions is created because each of our eyes receives a slightly different image (due to their separation). The brain interprets these slightly offset images and creates the perception of three dimensions. With 3D video, this is achieved by projecting two separate images onto the movie screen (or from the HDTV screen) and controlling which eye sees which image. You may remember the red and blue glasses of yesteryear. These anaglyph images worked by simply filtering images out by using different coloured lenses, sending one image to the left eye and the corresponding image to the right eye. For obvious reasons, this crude method is no longer used.

Inside a movie theatre, filters allow the projector to “polarize” the light coming from the projector, causing it to hit the silver-coated screen and be reflected at different “angles”. Inexpensive glasses with corresponding polarized filters then only allow specific angles of light back through, delivering a different image for each eye. You may already be familiar with polarization if your sunglasses are polarized to filter out glare. Movie theatre 3D glasses work in the same way, albeit with even more filtering.

Unfortunately, due to technological and economical constraints, this polarization method is not feasible with 3D HDTVs at home. The first generation of 3D HDTVs work by quickly alternating between displaying an image for the right eye and an image for the left eye. Together with synchronized “active shutter” glasses, these images are filtered to each eye accordingly, creating the perception of 3D.

Active shutter glasses are made of liquid crystal lenses, similar to the liquid crystal in digital watch displays, and a wireless receiver, allowing them to be synchronized with a control signal. The glasses control which image is being received by each eye by actively alternately blacking out the lenses to only allow one image to be seen at a time. The glasses synchronize with a signal from a transmitter, either connected to or built into the 3D-capable HDTV, blacking out one eye as the appropriate image for the other eye is displayed on the HDTV. This happens 60 times per second per eye and is imperceptible to human eyes. It is literally like having a set of shutters (or blinds) in front of each eye that rapidly opens and closes to control which image is seen by each eye. Active shutter glasses do slightly reduce the brightness of the HDTV image which is compensated by a brighter backlight and colour saturation on the HDTV. These active shutter glasses are typically rechargeable and last between 80-200 hours per charge. Prices vary from $129 to $249 per pair depending on the manufacturer and style – yes, manufacturers are creating different styles and colours to try to make them slightly more aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, similar to each manufacturer’s proprietary method of linking their components together (e.g. Sony’s Bravia Link, Panasonic’s Viera Link and Samsung’s Anynet+), active shutter glasses from one manufacturer will not work with a different manufacturer’s 3D HDTV. Fortunately, third party accessory makers have already announced their non-OEM versions of active shutter glasses with one company creating a “universal” pair that will work across different manufacturers’ 3D HDTVs.

Samsung was the first manufacturer to ship 3D HDTVs to Canadians, with four LCD series now available and two plasma series which should be available by the time you read this. The LCD line-up includes both LED backlit models (LED 9000, LED 8000 and LED 7000 series) and CCFL backlit models (750 LCD series). Screen sizes of the LCD models range from 40 to 55 inches, with prices from $2,499 to $3,999. The 3D plasma TVs (8000 and 7000 series) will span models from 50 to 63 inches, and range from $2,699 to $4,399. All of these 3D HDTVs have the transmitter built in but do not come with active shutter glasses, which are sold separately for $249 each. Samsung also offers a combo pack with two pairs of glasses and the DreamWorks animated 3D film “Monsters vs. Aliens” for $449. Samsung’s first 3D Blu-ray player, the BD-C6900, retails for $399.

Panasonic’s VT25 3D plasma TV series consists of the 65-inch TC-P65VT25 ($4,999), 58-inch TC-P58VT25 ($3,999), 54-inch TC-P54VT25 ($3,499) and 50-inch TC-P50VT25 ($2,999). These sets have built-in 3D transmitters and each come with one pair of 3D glasses. Panasonic’s first 3D Blu-ray player, the DMP-BDT300, will retail for approximately $399. All these models should begin appearing in stores by the time you read this.

Sony’s 3D HDTVs offering consists of two series. The higher-end LX900 come with a built-in transmitter as well as two pairs of active shutter glasses. There are four models to choose from: the 60-inch ($5,499), 52-inch ($4,499), 46-inch ($3,499) and 40-inch ($2,999). They are available for pre-order now and will ship in June. The HX800 series is labelled as 3D-ready because these models do not have a built-in 3D transmitter or come with 3D glasses. The HX800 series comes in 55-inch ($3,799), 46-inch ($2,999) and 40-inch ($2,599) sizes. The separate 3D transmitter is $69, individual glasses are $149 each and a combo package consisting of two pairs of glasses and a transmitter is available for $349. Sony’s BDP-S470 3D Blu-ray player is available now for $299.

And just in case you’re wondering – where does glassless 3D fit into all this? Unfortunately, it will be a several years before glassless 3D systems will be a viable option for 3D at home. Glassless 3D displays work by using a filter on the surface of the screen that allows them to simultaneously transmit two different images. If you’ve ever had one of those rulers with vertical slits that showed a different image when tilted, this is the basis of glassless 3D. The disadvantage of using a parallax barrier or lenticular filter is that the viewing angles and positions are typically limited. The viewer’s eyes must be a specific distance and angle away from the screen to receive both images properly so that they can be interpreted as 3D. Until then, active shutter glasses will be the prevailing 3D technology.

A 3D-capable TV is not much use without the content and fortunately, on that front, broadcasters have adopted a frame compatible format that is backwards compatible with existing digital set-top boxes (with most only requiring a firmware update to enable 3D content). This will enable cable and satellite providers to provide 3D content over existing networks without requiring new decoding equipment for consumers. Broadcast 3D will be available in 1080i/30 and 720p/60.

Unfortunately, for Blu-Ray 3D, a new Blu-Ray player will be required because it utilizes a new codec to encode the dual streams of video. The one exception to this is the PlayStation 3, which has already received one firmware upgrade to enable 3D gaming and will receive a second upgrade in the coming weeks to enable 3D Blu-ray playback. Blu-Ray 3D will be available in full 1080p/24 and 720p/60 and be backwards compatible with existing devices meaning 2D players will just ignore the extra video stream on 3D discs. 3D Blu-ray players from Samsung, Panasonic and Sony are available for purchase now. Like many higher-end Blu-Ray players, they all feature built-in WiFi (except the Panasonic), Ethernet, backlit remotes and other amenities. One unique feature of the Panasonic is that it comes with two HDMI outputs, allowing one to output a v1.4 HDMI signal to a 3D-capable HDTV while using the other to connect to a v1.3 receiver for audio.

Connecting all of this new 3D gear together is the latest HDMI standard v1.4, but fortunately, for once, you may not have to upgrade if you’re already using high-quality v1.3 cables. HDMI v1.4 introduces support for higher resolutions (4096x2160p/24 used in digital theatres), Ethernet over HDMI (100 mbps), an Audio Return Channel, and some other additions. It still uses the same video/audio bandwidth and colour depth so existing switches and splitters will still be compatible. HDMI v1.3 cables will support all the new features except Ethernet over HDMI.

While I’ve only had a chance to view the 3D HDTVs from Sony and Samsung, I have watched a variety of content on both screens ranging from concert DVDs to animated movies to Hollywood blockbusters. I also had a chance to play some games on a PlayStation 3. I can definitely tell you that watching a soccer match in 3D brings an added sense of realism and perception to the game. Instead of feeling like you’re sitting high up in a stadium, it’s more like being closer to the pitch. Plays such as field kicks and penalties are much easier to gauge when there’s an almost tangible element of depth and placement to each of the players and their position on the field. I definitely believe that sports and video games will be a strong driving force for adoption of 3D. Two of my favourite genres of video games are first-person shooters and racing games, both of which are ideal for 3D.

Whether you think 3D is a fad or think it’s the next big thing in home entertainment, it definitely has its niche and is here to stay. Like all other technologies, prices will continue to drop as more manufactures begin releasing their 3D sets. Currently the premium over regular 2D HDTVs is less than 20 percent, so if you’re in the market for a new HDTV, you might as well make it a 3D-capable one.

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