By Jeffry Bartash
LAS VEGAS — Are people really ready to don funny glasses to watch three-dimensional television in their homes? The answer is a resounding "yes," according to the electronics and entertainment industries.
A technology developed in the 1920s, 3-D has often been ignored or ridiculed. For years it was used in cheesy monster movies or similar B-movies and required viewers to wear cheap, eye-straining plastic glasses.
"3-D has had a bumpy ride," Samsung America President Tim Baxter acknowledged.
Yet 3-D technology now seems poised for its big breakthrough, fresh on the heels of the blockbuster hit "Avatar." The 3-D movie has already generated more than $1.1 billion in worldwide sales, making it the second biggest revenue generator ever.
Encouraged by that success, leading TV manufacturers, broadcasters, Hollywood studios, computer companies and video providers such as DirecTV plan to launch 3-D devices and services in 2010. Even glass makers are getting into the act with fashionable 3-D shades that viewers won't be embarrassed to wear.
"It is now absolutely clear that 3-D is a global movement across all industries," said Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of graphics chipmaker Nvidia, one of dozens of companies that demonstrated 3-D at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It was one of the big themes of the 2010 event.
By the end of spring, TV makers Sony Corp., Samsung Electronics Co., Toshiba Corp., Panasonic Corp. and LG Display Co. will introduce as many as two dozen 3-D-capable television sets. They also plan to sell 3-D Blu-ray players and 3-D-compatible sound systems.
Many of these devices will be available in retail stores before the World Cup begins in June.
To entice customers, Sony and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN will collaborate to film up to 25 World Cup games in 3-D _ the most-watched event on the planet. ESPN will even create a new channel specifically for 3-D.
The 3-D movement needs a broadcaster such as ESPN early in its infancy. The company was one of the first to make a big push in HD starting in 2003, hastening widespread adoption of the technology that initially struggled to set down roots. Since then, older analog TVs have been phased out by manufacturers and HD is coming to dominate.
"We know sports fans drive new technology," said ESPN President George Bodenheimer.
Also on board is satellite provider DirecTV, another company instrumental in helping to create the HD market in the U.S.
DirecTV plans to create several channels dedicated to 3-D content later this year.
To fill those 3-D channels, cable and satellite providers need Hollywood to start pumping out far more 3-D shows and movies. Along with ESPN and Sony's own large movie studio, Dreamworks, Discovery Channel and Imax have already signed on. More broadcasters are expected to follow.
"It's an incredible artistic tool for filmmakers, and it has proven to be very big business," said Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose studio plans to release a version of the animated hit "Monsters vs. Aliens" in 3-D.
Movie lovers and sports fans aren't the only groups of consumers being targeted. As part of their 3-D push, electronics and entertainment companies aim to capture the youth crowd with 3-D video games and 3-D displays for computers.
Sony, for example, said millions of customers who own the PlayStation3 video console will be able to add 3-D technology to their boxes with a simple firmware download. And Nvidia Corp. has produced new 3-D graphics chips and teamed up with computer makers such as AsusTek Computer Inc. and video-game producer Epic Gaming to bring 3-D technology to the market.
"Clearly this is going to be a must-have for the next generation of gaming," Huang said.
3-D is even spreading beyond entertainment and will be incorporated into digital cameras and video recorders. Sony, Samsung and Panasonic are among the companies that plan to sell 3-D cameras and recorders in the near future.
As stunning as 3-D looks on TV, it might look even better for photos and home video, based on demonstrations at the annual CES. 3-D cameras could also help the technology make bigger inroads among women, who are major purchasers of cameras and recorders.
Despite all the attention, however, it's far from clear if consumers are willing to join the 3-D revolution. Many households have already spent small fortunes to buy HDTVs or build home theaters based on old-fashioned two-dimensional technology. They might be very reluctant to buy premium-priced 3-D TVs anytime soon, especially given a poor economy.
What's more, there is simply not enough content in 3-D available now to make it worthwhile for most consumers to upgrade. TV makers have developed technology to "upconvert" 2-D video into 3-D video, but it's not as good as native 3-D.
Yet the backing of so many titans in the electronics and entertainment industries seems sure to give 3-D the kind of push its never gotten before — the kind of push that might just make 3-D a mainstream technology 90 years after it was invented.
It doesn't hurt that those cheap 3-D glasses now have a little more style.
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