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3-Dimensional Television: The Wave of the Future or 8-Track Déjà Vu?

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October 01, 2010
Television Technology
Geoff Griswold - geoff@atlantaomnigroup.com

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Those attending HITEC last June in Orlando saw some stunning displays of 3-D TV technology.  Several vendor booths along with the guestroom of the future exhibit offered numerous samples of 3-D TV.  The question hoteliers are asking is, will the technology catch on to the point of being commercially viable and will the sets come down in price enough to have mass market appeal, and be affordable for hoteliers?

3-D technology is certainly not new.  Its inception dates back to the 1800s. In 1844, a Scottish inventor introduced the stereoscope, a device that took photographic pictures in 3-D.  This was the beginning of 3-D technology. The first 3-D color movie was released in 1935. By the 1940s, 3-D still cameras were fairly common. 

Many 3-D movies were produced in the early 1950s.  The first was “Bwana Devil”, which some critics called the start of the golden era of 3-D.  The invention of Space-Vision 3-D in the early 1960s was credited with reviving a second wave of 3-D.

The rock group KISS introduced the first 3-D music video in 1998.  Imax, a Canadian company known for its advanced theater technology, released its first Hollywood feature film in 3-D in 2004.  In December 2009, James Cameron’s long awaited “Avatar” was released in Imax 3-D breaking all kinds of box office records and became the highest grossing film so far with gross box office revenue numbers at $7.5 million, with a lifetime expected gross to overtake the longstanding leaders Star Wars Trilogy and ET.

Recently, TV networks have broadcast shows in 3-D, including an episode of the action comedy “Chuck” and several sporting events.  Several cable channels have begun broadcasting in 3-D, while others have announced intentions to do so.

Simply explained, 3-D uses two cameras representing the left and right eye.  The special 3-D glasses are polarized in the respective direction so each eye can only see its intended image.  The lenses of the glasses cancel out the other eye’s image.

3-D TVs work with active-shutter glasses that use an infrared signal to create the 3-D effect by rapidly opening and closing each lens.  It works seamlessly, creating an intensely immersive experience for movies, sports and video games.  Special glasses needed for this technology are more expensive than those used for movies, and start at $130.

The adoption of standards by the entertainment industry is expected to advance the use of 3-D TV.  Right now, as an example, special glasses that work on one TV will not work on another manufacturer’s set.  There are other technical issues that need to be addressed, as well.

There are several factors that will determine if 3-D TV really catches on.  Some include:
The availability of programming is one challenge. Currently, Comcast, Direct-TV and AT&T offer a limited selection of channels, such as ESPN 3D.  While there are 3-D stations available, some types of programming are better suited than others for 3-D.  The Masters Tournament at Augusta National worked well in 3-D, partly because of its lush surroundings and relatively slow pace.  3-D gave the course a dimension unavailable with even high definition programming. FIFA sponsor Sony also chose the 2010 World Cup stage to leverage its 3D technology and products, “with dazzling content to produce a unique and totally compelling viewing experience.”

Faster pace sports programming is harder to broadcast in 3-D because of bulky cameras and the distortion that can occur with high-speed shots.  However, NASCAR broadcasts have worked well and sports programming is seen as a driver for 3-D television.

There does not seem to be much interest from networks in making 3-D available for reality shows, sitcoms or police dramas. The production costs for 3-D are about double that of traditional programming and many shows recently converted to HD, which cost millions.

Another concern with 3-D TV is that it may cause eye strain, dizziness or even headaches.  Samsung, an early leader in 3D, has an entire Webpage (www.samsung.com/au/tv/warning.html) devoted to potential health risks from watching  3-D TV broadcasts, including seizure and stroke warning as well possible confusion and nausea.  Also included are warnings not to use the 3-D glasses for any other purpose than viewing TV and not to sit too close to the set.

Of particular concern to hoteliers is the following sentence contained on the warning page:  “We do not recommend watching 3-D if you are in bad physical condition, need sleep or have been drinking alcohol.”  This could include a significant percentage of hotel guests on any given night.

While some of the symptoms described in these warnings may be rare, they still should be of concern to any hotel operator considering installing 3-D TVs in any area of a hotel, along with the prices of the sets.  Current prices for 40-inch sets start just under $2,000 with 60-inch sets ranging from $2,500 to $3,000.  These sets are high definition as well as 3-D.

Recently, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said, “I’m not sure [3D TV] is going to be economically viable for the near future.”

The president of research at NBC Universal stated, “Just because we can do it doesn’t mean the audience wants it.”

From a differing perspective, Vice President of video services for Comcast Jay Kreiling told Sports Video Group earlier this year, “We’re looking at 3-D as the next evolution of the best in home entertainment. It represents the best available in content. Movies present a huge opportunity from an on-demand perspective.”

3-D TV should be considered an emerging technology with some promise.  While some of the technical limitations will be overcome by advances in the technology itself, it remains to be seen whether it will really be accepted on a broad scale or whether there will be adequate programming available to make the investment worthwhile.

Geoff Griswold is a field engineer and general manager of the Omni Group, an IT services company specializing in the hospitality industry.  He can be reached at (678) 464-2427 or geoff@atlantaomnigroup.com.

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