“What Happened to 3D TVs?” a fellow dad asked me this past weekend as we each watched over our respective offspring at a fifth birthday party. No doubt he was just having a polite conversation, but little did he know that he had just stumbled upon one of the many technical topics that fascinated me far more than I probably should.
You see, even after all this time (manufacturers like Samsung released their last 3D TVs in 2015) I’m still mad about the whole sorry saga. A story where manufacturers, so desperate to sell us flagship TVs with new technologies, pushed 3D with the insistence of grandma pushing Bourbon biscuits, despite the fact that it was nonsense at the time.
It should be remembered that this was the age of the 1080p, or Full HD, TV – a resolution only a quarter of the 4K that is now fairly widely available. 1080p was fine for 2D TV at the time, but getting it to work with basic 3D glasses of the type you’d get at the movie theater required dividing the resolution by two – one half for each eye. That level of resolution loss was obvious and not pleasant at all.
The solution that some manufacturers opted for was battery-powered active glasses. This allowed the original resolution of the content to be maintained even when watching in 3D. Brilliant! Besides the glasses being very expensive (I remember the ones for the Panasonic Plasma I had at the time cost around £90 / $110 / AU$170 a pair), they never charged when you wanted to use them, and they were very uncomfortable, partly because the batteries made them heavy and partly because, unsurprisingly, TV manufacturers know very little about making glasses.
Many people bought 3D TVs, but only a few really wanted the 3D element – for everyone else it was just a feature of a TV they bought for other reasons. And even those who wanted 3D TV invariably felt that either the quality was too poor (in the case of the passive glasses) or the experience too clumsy (active glasses) and eventually gave up, and this apathy on the part of the consumers eventually convinced manufacturers to stop trying to force-feed everyone.
Ultimately, around the birth of 4K TVs, 3D TVs were unceremoniously put out to pasture. That’s no coincidence — manufacturers could afford to stop trying to convince us of the merits of one technology because they suddenly had another to force our unsuspecting faces (“How about a Custard Cream, honey?” ).
The thing is, not only is 4K brilliant in its own right, but it’s exactly the technology that could have made 3D great.
The active glasses solution would never work. Too much hassle. But if the cheap-and-cheerful passive glasses were paired with a 4K native display, you’d still get a 2K 3D presentation, which is more than enough for a satisfying performance. This is how most 3D projectors work, several of which are still in production – and it works quite well.
In fact, 8K TVs are now available. With passive glasses, they could provide a 4K 3D image. That would be excellent, and certainly a better use of those 8K TVs than actual 8K content, which looks like it’s never going to arrive and seemingly no one but Samsung cares about.
To be clear, I’m not saying 3D should be the next big thing for TVs. It’s only good for some content and for some people it’s just never going to appeal, but if done right and for just some movies and games I think it could be brilliant.
I suspect we’ll never find out though, because the TV manufacturers screwed it all up by going too hard and too fast when the technology was in its technologically compromised early stages.
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