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Three Weeks With 3-D TV
Test driving some quality couch-time with the third dimension: Is seeing in stereo mind-blowing, or does it fall flat?

June 16, 2012

By Erik Sofge

PITY POOR 3-D. It's the rare display technology that's trumpeted so loudly by such a vast syndicate of entertainment industry titans—the Hollywood studios, the TV-makers, the movie theater owners and cable and satellite TV providers—only to be met with a collective groan of disinterest, if not naked disgust. 3-D's boosters claim that these are early days, and that widespread resistance is a replay of the initial skepticism toward sound in the movies, or high-definition TVs in the home. Change is scary, they say. Change takes time. And, more ominously, change may be inevitable. Today's high-end flat-panels are increasingly 3-D-ready, an optional viewing mode that you can choose to ignore, but that could soon become as universal as high-definition itself.

So, sure, let's give 3-D a chance. Or three weeks of chances—21 days to find out what it's like to live with an actual 3-D TV and all of the attendant content, from movies and videogames on disc to dedicated cable channels. Would there be enough to watch? Would anyone watch it with me? Do the glasses, the damnable glasses, ever stop being weird? And, most important, is it possible that, when you're home on the couch, 3-D is more seductive than its legions of haters ever imagined?

What We Used

THE PARAMETERS for the test were simple: Pretend to be a new 3-D TV owner. Not a 3-D enthusiast or hard-core early adopter, but someone curious about the technology built into his freshly purchased TV—in this case, a 46-inch Sony LED HX850 Internet TV ($1,900). Sony lent us the unit, as well as two of their new, ultralightweight Titanium Active 3-D Glasses ($100 each). For content, I'd rely on my PlayStation 3—which plays 3-D Blu-rays—and a standard digital cable box. Why, you might ask, so much Sony? Of all the companies currently pushing 3-D, both at home and in theaters, Sony might have the most at stake. Its cameras are the backbone of the stereo-capture camera system codeveloped by James Cameron. Sony is co-owner of 3net, a 24-hour, 3-D-only channel airing on DirecTV. And anyone looking to physically own a 3-D movie or game has to buy it on Blu-ray, the disc format that Sony championed into existence. If anyone can smooth my transition to small-screen 3-D, it's the company that's invested millions in every facet of the technology.

So I get the TV, I get the glasses, I charge the glasses (yes, they have to be plugged in…more on that later), I slip them on and open my mind to a brave new dimension in home entertainment.


Modes, Menus and Nausea

THIS IS GRIM. I flip to my first 3-D channel. Mixed martial artists are wailing on each other in a storm of pixels, some of which jut out from the screen, while others recede into its guttering depths. It looks less like 3-D than some roiling glitch, and what is ostensibly high-definition footage of two guys fighting becomes a fuzzy blur. Why is this so ugly?

I hit the channel guide to look for ESPN 3-D. "Oh god!" I say. I actually say that. Words are plastered across other words, as the complex business of displaying a 3-D signal turns an otherwise orderly on-screen guide into a mayhem of comically large, semi-translucent characters appearing at random depths.

I switch to ESPN 3-D. I can tell this is basketball, but it's displaying as a demented picture-in-picture, with two duplicate versions of the same frame squashed onto the screen, side-by-side.

Clearly, this isn't going well. My first impression of 3-D TV? It's just too much work for something that used to be known as the boob tube.

For example, in order to watch this basketball game—which, like the mixed martial arts fight, was neither live or current—I had to change the TV's 3-D mode. When you first land on a 3-D channel, the image will appear to be doubled, either vertically or horizontally, until you select the correct mode on the TV. That's when the two frames overlay each other, and, with the help of your glasses, trick you into seeing depth.

The depth achieved here is nifty, yet disorienting. Players hover forward, but the surface of the court doesn't compute. It's a flat, 2-D plane, a backdrop against which these odd shapes are sliding. So I try a movie instead—"Cars 2," one of HBO's 3-D offerings. Even 3-D's biggest critics tend to agree that the technology often works well with animation. Here, the meager benefits aren't worth the creeping nausea, and the weird, inescapable sense that this is a chore. It's not just the menu-fiddling and paucity of content. The work is in my eyes, and behind them. It's tense and exhausting. 3-D TV is the opposite of what TV is for.


Blu-ray to the Rescue

THIS IS MIRACULOUS. Not what's on the screen, necessarily, but that I'm watching something on a 3-D TV, and loving it.

It's "Fright Night 3-D," a horror movie remake starring Colin Farrell that limped out of the theaters last year, and made it onto Blu-ray and into my PlayStation 3. And it looks incredible. The 3-D flicker that I've spent a week trying, and failing, to get used to—it's like watching a movie through a spinning fan—is gone. I didn't even have to select the appropriate 3-D mode. The TV automatically adjusted to the correct setting. More importantly, the film has compositions meant to be shown in stereo because it was shot with 3-D camera rigs. 3-D at home is finally fun.

Getting here? Not so much. After abandoning broadcast 3-D, I went searching for discs. Netflix, to my surprise, didn't stock 3-D movies, despite offering a wide selection of Blu-rays. No 3-D Blu-rays in those Redbox rental vending machines, either. My last resort was a thoroughly sketchy one—a little-known (to non-3-D TV owners, at least) website called, where you pay for each rental, as well as potential late fees.

A few days later, the disc arrived in the mail and here I was, absorbed in a better 3-D experience than I've had in most theaters—the artistic merits of "Fright Night 3-D" aside.

There were specific technical factors behind this vast improvement from last week. Since the data on Blu-ray isn't as compressed as the equivalent 3-D broadcast content, there was more information to work with, enough for the TV to deploy its MotionFlow feature. Every manufacturer has its own name for motion interpolation, which counters the flicker sometimes found on LCD TVs by creating and inserting additional frames. This smooths out motion, but the results can be disastrously unreal, making characters appear to be whipping from one position to the next, as though moving in fast-forward.

Motion interpolation, however, might be 3-D's best friend. The precise reasons are buried within the obtuse mechanics of 3-D technology, how it doubles footage, and then sends different signals to each eye. Inevitably, some visual information gets lost in the shuffle, and the image seems to flicker. MotionFlow fills the gaps, stitching jagged stereo footage into something smooth and effortless. When the "Fright Night" credits rolled, there was no eyestrain, no jabbing threat of headache. I could do this all night.

Still, 3-D TV comes with a price. You can't lie down. Tilt your head even a few degrees, and that crisp image flattens and blurs. Sit to one side of the screen and objects double at their edges, taking on ghostly auras. So you face the screen, sit ramrod straight and watch this movie like it's your job, like your life depends on it. Which is fine, every so often. But it's a reminder that watching 3-D TV is not like watching TV. It's unlike anything, really, other than the strange, new, temperamental thing that it is.


3-D Is the Loneliest Number

I'M GOING TO MISS 3-D TV. But I'm probably not going to recommend it to anyone.

Sean McCabe for The Wall Street Journal.

It's practically impossible to find anything in 3-D worth watching at home. There's broadcast 3-D, which is the absolute pits. Even when you find something that looks impressive, like the relatively straightforward visual geometry of a tennis match, the event itself is a creaky old rehash like a Wimbledon final from last year. More likely, you'll find programming recycled from amusement park rides (I watched one from 1999 that featured Elvira).

Digital 3-D content, like the movies available for download from Sony's PlayStation Store, are no less buggy or strenuous to watch. Then there's 3-D Blu-ray content, a sparse lineup of movies that are barely worth renting, much less buying at $35 apiece. If you do find one or two viable options, you'll likely watch them alone, locked into position in front of your TV, constantly nudging the screen to face you dead-on and fiddling with the brightness and color balance (to offset the dark, distorted glasses). Anyone talked into joining you will be jockeying for that same optimal viewing angle. Maybe "Prometheus," when it's released on Blu-ray, will merit your first and only 3-D TV party. Still, better to have a friend with one of these sets (and enough glasses) than to be that friend.

What gives me hope that every TV will eventually be 3-D-ready is the gaming world. Though the selection is still pretty limited, a growing number of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 titles have optional 3-D modes. (Unlike with movies, which tend to jam "3-D" in the title, you have to look for the relatively subtle 3-D icon on the game box.) Some 3-D games can be incredible. "Crysis 2" is jaw-dropping when played while wearing dorky glasses. It's a futuristic first-person shooter, and the way that data—bullet count, icons pointing out enemy positions—hovers in the foreground, while the violence rolls off into the distance, is beautifully executed.

And while you might team up with friends or strangers online, gaming often happens in physical isolation. You're absolved of the awkward challenge of finding a 3-D TV buddy. Remember, your old TV viewing habits are irrelevant. You aren't snuggling up with a significant other to watch a marathon of "Top Chef" in stereo, while tapping around on your respective laptops or tablets. You're sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes forward. And if those glasses run out of power half way through a movie? Too bad.

When my three weeks are up, I realize that, other than gaming, I've given up on 3-D. Why bother, when this TV displays 2-D programming so well?

In some ways, 3-D's apologists are right, that it's reminiscent of HD, back when hi-def content consisted solely of a tiny selection of movies on disc and a handful of channels running whale documentaries. But HD was and is a universal upgrade—it makes everything look sharper and more detailed without stipulating where you sit or what you wear. 3-D, on the other hand, begs everyone, the creators of content as well as its consumers, to adapt to a technology that's not necessarily superior. It's just more eccentric.

And fragile. As my daughter and I found out, glasses with built-in LCD screens break easily. (Toddlers: They drop things. Go figure.) Whereas TV remotes can be chewed and tossed on a daily basis, 3-D glasses should be charged regularly and handled with the utmost care. Unlike the passive glasses used in most theaters, and by some TV makers, active glasses are battery-powered gadgets, with screens that flutter as you watch. Arguments for and against both types of glasses are inconclusive, though it's widely believed that active models offer a cleaner image in exchange for being expensive (they can cost around $100) and yet another device that has to be charged.

And that's the state of 3-D TV today, a fragile technology that still feels experimental. With careful calibration and content selection, it can be fantastic and otherworldly. To the casual viewer, though, it's more likely to be unpredictable. Maybe glasses-free approaches will eventually reinvent 3-D as an effortless standard. Until then, leave it to the obsessive and the proudly solitary.

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