McAdams On: HD vs. 3D--Clash of the Hype

TVs are evolving faster than bugs these days. There are nearly as many varieties. There are liquid crystal, digital-light processing, organic and inorganic light-emitting diode displays, plasmas and laser TVs. There are still millions of cathode-ray tubes hooked up to converter boxes. There are 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p sets from 60 to 600 Hz (Panasonic’s 42-inch 720p TC-P42C1 plasma, at target for a coincidental $600.)

We’ve not yet even started on Internet-connected or 3D TVs, and perhaps we shouldn’t until we achieve uniform quality in HDTV.

The high-definition of HDTV currently is highly dubious. Depending on the content delivery system, it can look amazing or pitiful. HBO on some cable systems looks astounding, because HBO executives cut carriage deals that dictate a minimum bit rate. They have the leverage of a premium fee split. Most networks don’t.

The appearance of hi-def broadcast content is subject to the platform. Multichannel video providers are notorious compressors. Some broadcasters themselves squeeze multicasts alongside the supposed hi-def feed. There’s also the matter of origination formats--720p or 1080i--and how those are encoded and decoded along the way to perhaps a native 1080p display.

Internet-to-TV video is something else altogether. I’m using a peripheral described as an HD device. It has a 720p HDMI output and 16:9 video mode. It also transmits a two-hour movie in real time, and I’m getting 1 Mbps from Verizon for the low, low price of 3 Mbps. The video looks like a paint-by-numbers picture at times. It’s handy to download movies from the Web and watch them at will. It’s just not HD. Not by a long shot.

It’s surprising more people aren’t disgusted with what passes for hi-def content, but the reality is that people watch stories, not pictures. If TV programming providers actually competed, it might be a different story. Broadband of any kind, nationwide or otherwise, won’t revolutionize video quality. Verizon can’t even cough up what it promises at 8 a.m. on a weekday. A private-public partnership will top a multi-billion corporation? I don’t think so.

3DTV could be cool; it could be fun; it could be great. It could also be done wrong in so many, many ways, and unlike HD, it can actually make people sick. Badly rendered high-def images might disgust a few folks, but it’s not making them vomit. That might be a good place to set the bar.