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Through 3-D Glasses, Lightly

January 11, 2011

It's often said that 3-D makes movies and television more "lifelike." But that's not quite correct, because humans don't really see in 3-D -- at least not in the special-effects sense. (If we did, we wouldn't gasp at snowflakes in 3-D movies -- or wouldn't gasp at them more than we do at snowflakes out the window.) Three-dimensional programming is reality enhancement: It's life-plus. And, although it can seem incredibly cool, it can be annoying -- for some people, to the point of nausea -- if the effects are overdone.

I thought about all that recently, as I sampled a variety of 3-D content on TV sets from several manufacturers. My overall reaction was that I liked it best when I noticed it least. The most fully satisfying sample I saw was one of the simplest, a clip of an Olympic figure skater, which I watched on an awesome plasma set at Panasonic's U.S. headquarters in New Jersey -- although part of the appeal of that clip was the refreshing absence of commentary by Scott Hamilton and Dick Button.

The first 3-D television broadcast I ever watched was a demonstration -- by Comcast, Sony and IBM -- in the press building at the 2010 Masters. The 3-D demo, which required its own cameras and production crew, did a vastly better job of conveying Augusta National's often dramatic topography than regular TV does.

Through my 3-D glasses, I could clearly see the billiard-ball curve of the closely mowed bank between the edge of a green and a water hazard, a detail that barely registers on a regular set. But the experience wasn't uniformly intoxicating. When a spectator suddenly walked in front of the camera, there wasn't a brief blur; there was a rip in the fabric of space-time. The same wizardry that plumps up landscapes can transform extraneous visual information into otherworldly distractions.

Three-dimensional TV works by sending slightly offset images to your right and left eyes, forcing your brain to reconcile them and creating an illusion of depth -- exactly what your eyes and brain do normally, only more so. There are two main viewing technologies: active and passive. In active systems (which are more common), the right- and left-eye images are shown successively, dozens of times a second, over the entire screen. You wear battery-powered LED glasses that block one eye, then both eyes, then the other eye, then both again -- all faster than you can detect, and in sync with the set. In passive systems, the right- and left-eye images are shown simultaneously, in alternating lines. An overlay on the screen aligns light waves from the odd and even lines in different directions, and you wear glasses that allow each eye to see only one or the other.

For most potential buyers, the main difference is probably asset allocation: An active 3-D set typically costs just a couple of hundred dollars more than a comparable high-definition set (and the difference is shrinking), but extra glasses can go for $100; a passive set is usually several hundred dollars pricier than an active set, but the glasses are practically throwaways. The good news is that any decent 3-D TV is also, by necessity, a more-than-decent HDTV -- needing no glasses.

The truly big issue with 3-D TV is the same as with all TV: content. Producing quality programming in 3-D is expensive and difficult, and there isn't much of it yet. (ESPN has a 3-D channel, but, so far, it has averaged just a few 3-D events a week.) Before the networks go crazy over this new toy, they should master their current ones. Now that HDTV has made golf balls visible to the naked eye, why is so much tournament broadcast time still devoted to showing players we don't care about lining up putts that don't matter?