McAdams On: The HD-to-3DTV Transition

HDTV is about to become as passé as Zip Drives, dot-matrix printers and vacuums that have to be pushed around. Or so it seems from the rhetoric surrounding 3DTV. It’s compelling, no doubt. The migration of television to a digital infrastructure opened the medium up to the same sort of fluidity characteristic of all silicon-based industries. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, remains the same for long, and the obsolescence curve keeps shortening. TrueCycle, a consumer electronics recycler in Pasadena, Calif., says the average lifespan of a computer in 1997 was four to six years. By 2005, it was said to be less than two years, “which means that one computer will become obsolete for each one put on the market,” McAdams wrote from her antique Dell.

Now television as a platform is much the same, precisely because the hardware has morphed into a computer platform. Around half of U.S. television households bought high-definition TV sets within the last four years or so. Prices for HDTV sets are about half of what they were even two years ago. A 46-inch, 1080p, 60 Hz Samsung is less than $900 at Walmart. That TV would have easily run $1,600 or more in 2008.

So it is by necessity--at least in part--that the consumer electronics industry has wrapped itself around 3DTV. The phenomenon is also a natural progression of the possibilities presented by silicon, and a certain breed of engineers of the George Mallory school of motivation. They are pursuing the technical challenges of 3DTV precisely “because it is there.”

Predictions abound about 3DTV; that it will take hold quicker than HDTV, that the 3D format itself will be a multi-billion business within two years time, etc. “Avatar” certainly advanced that mileage gauge, though it’s arguably the first widely accepted 3D movie, and James Cameron spent years and at least a quarter-of-a-billion dollars on it. It looks good for a reason. A lot of other 3D preceding it--not so much. And the early attempts at 3D sports, meaning football in the United States, generated mixed reactions. “Some of it was really tough on your eyes,” offered Shon Lucas on last year’s 3D coverage of the BCS Championship Game. Diane Pucin of The Los Angeles Times noticed the “jerky cameras, unusual angles and just a general sense that it was an experiment with kinks not worked out.”

To be fair, that was a year ago. A lot has happened since then, but there’s miles to go according to the TV experts who came together recently at the USC School of Cinematic Arts for a Sports Video Group event. There are multiple ways of formatting 3D, for one thing. There’s no single mastering standard, though the work is under way. Inserting ads is an issue unto itself. Perhaps most complex is the challenge of syncing 3D video images properly for human visual perception. That is, not making people sick.

What likely happened to Shon Lucas is similar to what affected folks at Cowboy Stadium Dec. 13, when a 3D version of the action on the field was displayed on the venue’s 160-by-72-foot video screen. Pupils are a fixed distance apart, and vision converges at around 60 feet, where we naturally see two dimensions. The big-screen 3D effect caused people’s eyes to veer out of alignment. With home 3DTV, this so-called “vergence” occurs at around two feet behind the viewing screen, giving large venues an on-screen appearance of a diorama. (Slide courtesy of Mark I. Schubin.)

3DTV is exciting as much for the technical challenges as for the format itself, but I don’t look for it to supplant HDTV any time soon. Half of the TV-equipped households in the country have standard-definition TVs, and a significant portion of those have converters or a pay service hooked up to a cathode-ray tube. Those of us in the press, and certainly the consumer electronics and video industries, will hype 3DTV as if it’s the commercialization of cold fusion.

It is not. It will be an enhancement in a constantly shifting landscape of evolving media platforms, one day coming to an iTablet near you.
(Share your thoughts with me at -- Deborah D. McAdams)