Innovation in your television

 

SO YOU’RE sitting down for your daily helping of soap opera, you don a pair of 3D specs in front of your 100-inch plasma TV and the mundane dramas of Fair City are transformed. Cars in Main Street seem to park themselves in your living room, pints at McCoy’s fly over the counter and threaten to poke you in the eye; Ray O’Connell’s moustache almost seems to tickle your chin.

It might take a few years for three-dimensional technology to reach Carrigstown, but the future is already on the way, if Japan’s consumer electronics giants are to be believed. Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba are all set to roll out 3D-TVs and accessories this year in a bid to capitalise on the global popularity of James Cameron’s sci-fi eco opera Avatar.

Several more companies have prototypes lined up in an industry that badly needs a hit product to chase away the economic blues. “The 3D train is on the track, and we at Sony are ready to drive it home,” trumpeted Sony chief executive Howard Stringer last autumn. But will consumers fork out for yet more living-room hardware, and most crucial of all – will there be anything to watch?

Sony leads with the summer launch of a 3D TV equipped with a transmitter that sends a signal to specially designed glasses. Forget the cardboard bi-coloured specs of cheap sci-fi cinema – Sony’s battery-powered glasses boast special chip-controlled lenses with shutters that flicker on and off, giving the illusion of three dimensionality.

Sometime this year, the company also plans to debut 3D-compatible Blue-Ray players – the industry’s new high-quality format intended to replace standard DVD technology. And spokesman George Boyd says PlayStation 3 owners will be able to download software for 3D games and DVDs, for a fee of course.

After so many industry misfires – remember HD DVD – Sony is keen to dispel any fears that 3D TV is just a temporary fad that will soon be gathering dust with last year’s home karaoke machine. The company is betting big, aiming to make 40 per cent of all its TVs 3D-compatible by next year and retooling for a showdown with rivals Panasonic and Toshiba. Stringer has ordered Sony’s games division and its film studios in Culver City, LA to join the fray.

A Sony 3D technology centre to train directors and cinematographers in its use is also planned, says Boyd, pointing out that much of Avatar was shot using Sony cameras. “We’re in a unique position to having everything from the broadcasting and the film side of things, to the consumer products side, and we have games too.” Sony is aiming for one trillion yen in sales from 3D-related products by 2013.

Not to be outdone, Panasonic is about to launch its three-dimensional television, DVD player and glasses this spring, initially in the US then Europe and elsewhere. Couch potatoes should also brace themselves for a 152-inch 3D Panasonic TV, currently available only in prototype but coming to lay waste to eyeballs soon, says spokeswoman Kyoko Ishii.

The company, with a sales target of one million 3D TVs by Christmas, has enlisted the support of director Cameron: clips from Avatar will be screened on Panasonic’s TVs around the world in a bid to persuade consumers to buy the hardware. “I believe 3D is how we will experience movies, gaming and computing in the near future,” said Cameron.

Toshiba, meanwhile, has developed a high-tech version of its Regza LCD TV, which can screen either two- or three-dimensional images and handle multiple formats. South Korea’s Samsung and Hyundai have already launched their own 3D TVs in Japan and elsewhere.

Most are coy about the price tag – Panasonic’s Ishii says 3D TVs will “not be much” more expensive than conventional televisions. Most observers expect the entire set-up to retail for less than one million yen (about €765).

With the sale of all new hardware, however, comes the inevitable question – what about the software? One blockbuster movie does not a trend make, and 3D has a long history of crashing and burning once the novelty has worn off. Sony has announced content licences with the Discovery Channel and PGA Golf. “We plan to film a series of golf tournaments this year,” says Boyd. Sharp is one of a number of companies that has a 3D prototype but is waiting until content is more advanced.

Although Hollywood is becoming acquainted with the technology, think about the process of transforming the entire TV and movie industries from 2 to 3D. Viewers of Fair City will have to watch pints at McCoy’s served up in plain old two dimensions – at least for now.