Another Format War is Underway and It's in Eye-Popping 3D

Can the Full HD 3D Glasses Initiative see off its passive 3D rivals or is it backing the next Betamax?

By , Columnist
You know you are in a format war when…

…major manufacturers gang together to promote their product in what amounts to an implicit broadside across the bows of competing technologies.

This is what Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and XPAND 3D did this week with their announcement of a partnership to push forward the active 3D format for 3D glasses, 3D TVs and other 3D display devices. Known as the "Full HD 3D Glasses Initiative," the partnership is intended to facilitate standardization of active 3D technology and is one in the eye for companies such as LG that are backing the competing passive 3D approach.

"Panasonic has been working to standardize 3D glasses technologies, and in March we announced a joint licensing of IR system protocols with XPAND, backed by several participant companies."

So said Masayuki Kozuka, general manager of Media & Content Alliance Office, Corporate R&D Division at Panasonic Corporation, in a press release announcing the initiative.

"We are very pleased that today's latest collaboration will incorporate our previous concept into these new standardization efforts," he continued.  "We hope the expanded collaboration on this 3D standardization initiative will make a significant contribution toward accelerating the growth of 3D-related products."

To summarize, Panasonic is open to sharing its tech with other companies and thinks this is good way to make the active shutter approach to 3D popular with consumers.

It might be. The biggest problem, though, is not customers' concerns about incompatibility between different manufacturers' products (irritating though that is). Rather, it is the cost of active shutter 3D glasses: They are darned expensive.

Samsung's next-generation ultra-lightweight 3D Active Glasses for their 2011 LED 3D TVs are - to quote from the company's website - 'light-years ahead.' As any Star Trek fan knows, however, light years is a measure of distance not time. Hence, it would be more appropriate to say that they are light years away. This would certainly be true for the average consumer because these glasses cost $219.

Admittedly Samsung also makes a much cheaper (and far less cool looking) model at $49.99. For a family of four, though, that still amounts to an outlay of $200 (plus taxes). And Panasonic's equivalent products aren't any better. If you want to watch Avatar on your Panasonic 3D TV you'll probably have to spend at least $100. Until you can afford more than one pair the rest of your family should practice winking rapidly. (That price is at somewhat understandable when you consider that Panasonic doesn't market anything as vulgar as 3D glasses: These are 'eyewear'.)

LG, meanwhile, is giving away up to seven pairs of its passive 3D glasses with its latest Cinema 3D LED TVs. These freebies are thin, lightweight specs that are structurally similar to those you get in movie theaters. If you shop around, you can buy packs for under $20. At that price you need have no fears about sitting on them.

What all this means is that the members of the Full HD 3D Glasses Initiative need to not only standardize but also economize to ensure that they can compete with passive 3D. If they don't, they are likely to find themselves in the Betamax position. It was widely acknowledged that Betamax was a better format than VHS but it lost out in the video cassette format war because the slight offset in quality was not enough to deter people from the cheaper option.

Similarly, Full HD 3D is currently technically 'better' than passive 3D to the extent that it allows three dimensional video to be displayed at true 1080p resolution. The film patterned retarder technology LG uses in its passive 3D TVs doesn't (although the passive method does avoid crosstalk). Frankly, though, as much as I love my Samsung active 3D TV, I don't think its quality is better enough than the LG sets I've looked at that most consumers will notice, much less care. Price will therefore be the big battleground.

Even if passive 3D TVs are more expensive than active TVs, the additional cost of active shutter glasses for the average family is likely to make up the difference. What's more, active shutter glasses are machines themselves. If they go wrong or you drop them in the toilet, you'll have to spend another pile of money to replace them.

Even more worrying for those consumers who have already jumped into the active 3D sea is that members of the Full HD 3D Initiative have said their new products will be backwards compatible with 2011 active 3D TVs. Early adopters who helped to push the active 3D vision away from the shore by buying a 2010 TV might be left in the lurch when the promised standardization-applied active 3D glasses are made available next year.

"Through this alliance, we all look forward to addressing critical industry issues to enable a better consumer experience across products," said Sony's Jun Yonemitsu in the Initiative's press release. "We believe active 3D technology is the most suitable method to deliver full 1080p picture quality to each eye, giving consumers the 3D experience they most desire."

His confidence is admirable but the history of format wars tells us that 'a better consumer experience' is not defined only by a product's technical merits. Moreover, the best quality isn't necessarily what most consumers 'most desire.'

Active 3D manufacturers have indeed fired a broadside with the Full HD 3D Glasses Initiative. They are going to have to take careful aim, though, if they want to sink the enemy's ship.

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Michael Simpson is a freelance writer, editor, presenter, researcher, instructor, gadget freak and sci-tech consultant based in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley. Formerly from the UK, he’s converted from tea to coffee and written and presented on film, TV, science, nature, technology,…

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