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CES brings 3-D television into view

Sony had Taylor Swift performing live and projected it in three dimensions at its press conference in Las Vegas to introduce a new line of television sets that can display such signals. The entire audience was wearing polarized glasses, even Sir Howard Stringer, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Sony.

Virtually every high-definition set manufacturer followed suit in one way or another. And those 3-D glasses — some goofy-looking, others reflecting high fashion — are everywhere to be seen on the convention floor.

Whether it’s the new fad of the day or a significant shift in television technology, this is the year of 3-D television at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Boosted by the billion-dollar holiday success of James Cameron’s 3-D feature film “Avatar,” most electronics manufacturers joined in the 3-D push in hopes of selling consumers the next big technology in television.

Although many in the industry remain skeptical of the long range prospects for broadcasting 3-D television to the living room, video equipment manufacturers are predicting that consumers will pay more than $2000 for 42in 3-D television sets, buy special goggles for each member of the family to watch the programming and pay premium fees for 3-D programming. That’s assuming a reliable broadcast can be received and displayed as it was originally intended.

Indeed, at CES it is clear that every major television manufacturer is going to produce 3-D television sets and compatible Blu-ray DVD players in 2010. (Samsung’s 3-D LCD panel is as thin as a pencil and converts 2-D content into 3-D on the fly. This includes both DVD and broadcast TV content.)

The Blu-ray Disc Association last month agreed on a single standard for recording and playing back 3-D movies on Blu-ray discs. The move is the beginning of a long-range initiative to make 3-D replace HDTV products.

Of course, 3-D programming is essential to sell TV sets, and new networks were announced at CES as well. DIRECTV will launch this spring, announcing two linear 3-D channels and a video-on-demand 3-D channel. Panasonic will be the exclusive presenting sponsor for the channels, which will feature movies, sports and other content.

ESPN said that it would show the World Cup soccer matches and NBA basketball games in 3-D on a new network that will launch in June. Discovery, IMAX and Sony said they would jointly create a 3-D entertainment channel in 2011.

Even with all the hype about 3-D, many question whether viewers who have just upgraded to flat-screen HDTV sets will dump their expensive gear just to watch 3-D images. Even now, one-third of HDTV owners — or about 14 million — aren’t watching high-definition programming at all, according to a study done by media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates.

First adopters, for whom price is no object, will be the initial customers for 3-D but after that there are questions about whether 3-D will take hold with the masses. Like HDTV before it, sports is expected to be a major draw for 3-D viewers.

ESPN said it would show at least 85 live events on its 3-D channel. The Disney-owned sports network has held preliminary talks with Comcast and other operators about gaining distribution for the channel. The 3-D channel will cost subscribers extra and go dark when events are not being broadcast.

The 3-D channel being formed by the joint venture with Discovery Communications, Sony Pictures Entertainment and IMAX will be a full-time channel featuring natural history, space, exploration, adventure, engineering, science and technology, motion pictures and children’s programming. The parties have signed a nonbinding letter of intent with financial terms being kept a secret.

Whether the masses are ready to embrace 3-D — and the glasses required to view the format — can perhaps be answered in some anecdotal evidence. Football fans attending last month’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers gave the technology a resounding vote of no confidence.

Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX, has the largest video screen in the world hanging above the field. The plan was to allow ticket holders to watch close-ups and replays in 3-D during the second half with the help of special glasses distributed to the crowd of about 80,000.

The crowd, viewing the blurry screen, hated the experiment, and it lasted less than seven minutes after the stadium erupted in boos. It was a taste of reality for the engineers who develop such systems in a sterile laboratory.

Development of 3-D technology has gone on for many years. In the 1950s, Warner Brothers was so convinced that 3-D would save the movies from the competition of television that cartoon director Chuck Jones quipped that studio chief Jack Warner believed humans would evolve to the point where “they would be born with one red and one blue eye.”