Five Trends Tracked

Craig Norris is the Technology Editor for TV Technology Europe.

There's one unavoidable fact regarding predictions about the future. It's only a matter of waiting in order to find out if a prediction is right or wrong. So I'll keep playing it safe and just do my best to predict the past.

A year ago in my “Five Trends To Track” article I delineated what I considered to be the most significant events of the previous 12 months, from a television technology perspective. Well, judgment day has come in terms of reviewing the trajectory of those trends. Have the five big events that I described in that article gained any momentum? Let's review them, and see if there's anything new to add to the list of significant events.

TV Technology profiled a London glasses-free 3D tech demo in our July/August issue.Old declaration: “3D on consumer screens”: On the one hand, the PR firms have done a good job to create a perception of growth and good business for 3D displays, quoting sales figures for “3D-capable” screens and projectors that come across as healthy-looking statistics. The positive perception is bolstered by the energetic hype from some broadcasters who try to claim a market advantage or coup by doing the occasional 3D broadcast of a big sports event. But the real story is not so simple.

The real story is cloaked in confusion over competing 3D display technologies. Put simply, it's about passive glasses versus active glasses versus no glasses. Pretty much all 3D TV displays available in stores during 2011 require active shutter glasses in order to see 3D imagery. Most people hate wearing the active shutter glasses. I'm one of them.

Those active shutter glasses are uncomfortable. They have a limited field of view, like SCUBA diving goggles. They are expensive. They are troublesome. They can't be worn over the top of normal spectacles. They aren't even standardised – if you have two different brands of 3D TV in your home, you may very well need two different sets of active shutter 3D glasses, because the active shutter glasses aren't necessarily compatible with both brands of 3D screen that you might own.

In my opinion, the perceived 3D images through active shutter glasses lack richness due to two facts: the frame rate for each eye is half of what we could have with 2D, and the horizontal resolution is also half of “true HD” moving images because of the side by side method of squeezing the two video streams into one normal HD frame. The combined outcome of these two facts is a feeling that the 3D images seem to be “thin” - they seem to have a kind of ethereal characteristic that isn't pleasing. It's akin to watching your dreams rather than watching real life (that's an exaggeration, but I think you'll get my meaning).

This author has never been impressed by the active shutter glasses approach to 3D TV. On the other hand, he loved every demo of 3D that involved the passive glasses. The passive glasses are cheap, comfortable, and both eyes get the full frame rate with which we are accustomed. But one can't easily find a consumer 3D TV that uses passive glasses. Most of the big name brands are only offering active shutter 3D glasses. It's little wonder then that the take up rate for 3D TV sets hasn't been very high.

Another consumer complaint about 3D TV is the lack of good 3D content. After “Avatar” set such a high standard, everything that followed was a disappointment. In 2011, only one new movie has been flagged as being done so well in 3D that it justifies a 3D TV purchase. That movie is Martin Scorcese's “Hugo”. One good 3D movie per year isn't a high enough average to drive up the adoption rate of 3D TV sets (no offense, Martin).

So, to be honest, by September I had already lost interest in domestic 3D TV as a subject worth spending any time on. An unpleasant viewing experience coupled with a dearth of good content leads to a simple conclusion that there are much better things on which to spend one's precious time. But then I stumbled onto something that really surprised me.

Just before I departed on some overseas business, a television industry colleague who now works in R&D circles loaned me a kind of 'toy' to try out during my travels. It was an unbranded 3D camcorder with a glasses-free 3D LCD display. My affection for this 'toy' started in the Royal Botanical Gardens in London. Watching 3D clips directly on the lenticular LCD screen, without glasses of any kind, was a revelation. Walking through trees and gardens with the camcorder held low at waist height allowed very compelling 3D clips to be captured.

My affection for small screen glasses-free 3D developed into a torrid love affair the next day in the Kew Bridge Steam Museum. Capturing and watching 3D clips of the moving parts of steam engines was a lot of fun. That night, in a dimly lit restaurant over dinner with the technical head of a very major UK broadcaster, I passed the little camcorder to the unsuspecting VIP guest and said “Have a look at this.” Within a few seconds of watching one of my steam engine clips, his eyebrows shot to the top of his forehead while he exclaimed “It's 3D!”