(Almost) Everything I Think I Need to Know About 3D TV


Posted January 7, 2010 - By Andrew Pfister

Before writing this article -- and before yesterday’s Sony CES press conference, really -- I didn’t know much about 3D television. Nor did I care. I saw James Cameron’s Blank Check on a 3D screen and thought it was visually satisfying. The added depth brought by the 3D really did make a difference for me, and I can’t wait to see it used in a movie with better writing. But after seeing Super Stardust HD presumably being played in 3D, I began to wonder if it’s something that will belong in my living room. In an effort to answer that question, I set out on a fact-finding mission that will hopefully shield me from the onslaught of 3D TV hype emerging from CES. If, like me, you don’t know much about the topic, then please join me on this fantastic journey of discovery. Just put on these special glasses…

Key Terms:

Stereoscopy/Stereoscopic -- The base concept for 3D. Humans have two (stereo!) independent eyes (scopic!) that mix their respective visual information in the brain which spits out an image that has depth.

Anaglyphic -- Two images super-imposed to create a 3D effect when viewed through these things:

3D glasses

Old school!

Alternate-frame sequencing -- 3D content needs to convey two streams of visual information (for the left eye & right eye), so it’s presented to your peepers in alternating frames. But because the information is effectively doubled, the speed at which it’s presented needs to double too. (Hence the requirement for 120 Hz minimum refresh rates.) In 3D gaming on the PC, the frame rate needs to be super high to create the effect, which means steeper system requirements. Alternate-frame sequencing requires the use of active-shutter glasses.

Active-Shutter Glasses -- Receives signals from the display source and matches up the alternating frame with its intended left or right eye. Nvidia uses active-shutter glasses for its 3D Vision initiative. They were also used way back in the day on the Sega Master System. My cousin had one, and I played Missile Defense 3-D until my head nearly exploded from the discomfort.

Refresh Rate -- Basically, how often the image on your screen is redrawn. 3D TV requires a minimum refresh rate of 120 Hz to handle the increased amount of visual information that needs to be displayed.

Autostereoscopic -- The holy grail, from what I can tell: 3D TV without the need for special glasses. It’s possible (and already exists in an incredibly expensive form), but it doesn’t appear to be mass-marketable for quite some time.

Philips Autostereoscopic 3D TV

James Cameron -- Former truck driver who invented movies. (Seriously though, he commissioned the design of an entire suite of 3D filming technology that he employed in Avatar, and convinced theaters to upgrade to 3D-capable screens. There’s an excellent article about this in the December 2009 issue of Wired.)

HDMI 1.4 -- The most recent update to the HDMI standard adds support for stereoscopic 3D display. It also increases the resolution to that used by digital movie theaters, 4096 x 2160, and has built-in ethernet support. Neat!

Television -- Discovered in 1762 by Sir Gregory Television, “TV” has become an every day part of our lives, delivering news of the world, contests of sporting strength, and my stories.


"Why do I need a 3D television in my living room, when I just bought a new HDTV? What the heck, guys?"

I know, right? I have a rather large Sony SXRD television that I purchased from a friend a year ago, and though it’s not something I can hang on a wall, it’s serving me quite well for high-def movies, games, and TV. I’m not alone: despite the rough economy, HDTV sales are still going strong.

Sony Bravia 3D TVBut the new 3D TVs, like Sony’s just-announced Bravia that will be available in the summer, aren’t for you and me. They’re for the early adopters who will happily plunk down the obscene amount of money to beta test the technology for when the rest of us are ready. Content providers are just now announcing their plans to provide 3D content, and it will be slim pickings for quite some time. I remember getting an HDTV relatively early in the cycle and being amazed…at the assortment of PBS shows and un-narrated nature scenes. We’ve got some time to kill.

"I saw Avatar, and it was pretty and everything, but it gave me a headache…"

The headache thing didn’t happen to me personally, but as I was proclaiming to my family over the holiday break that the the only way to watch Avatar was in 3D, my brother said that the glasses he wore for Pixar’s Up triggered head pains. I can see that happening and sympathize; prolonged exposure to Avatar wasn’t painful, but by the end (robot knife!), I definitely felt the need to rest my eyes.

"Glasses? Really?"

Fine for a movie, and maybe an episode or two of Lost: The New Survivors per night, but I just don’t see myself tolerating prolonged exposure to obtrusive eyewear, especially for gaming. (I’m neglecting my need to wear real glasses for a reason.) That’s why it’s autostereoscopic or nothing…at least until we get to the positional holographic projectors that will be available in 2019.

In the meantime, I’m not going to work up too much nerd rage over being “required” to upgrade to 3D, because I don’t believe I have to just yet.

Thoughts about 3D TV? Air your grievances below!

(Almost) Everything I Think I Need to Know About 3D TV


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