It’s 2013. Consumer TVs with 3D built-in have only been on sale in the U.S. since 2010. But in just three years, 3D has gone from the whiz-bang “it” feature of the future to the black sheep of the consumer electronics family. There have been many post-mortems on the seeming demise of the technology, so I won’t venture into that territory. In fact, I still think home 3D, done right, can be pretty cool and compelling. But is it too little too late?
MY FIRST 3D TV
As much as I love being an early adopter, I just couldn’t muster up the energy to buy a new TV just because of 3D, especially in 2010 when the TVs were initially quite expensive. But then my wife and I moved into a new home late last year, giving us the perfect excuse to upgrade our in-home tech. Ideally, I wanted to find a 60+ inch LED TV with passive 3D (click here for the differences between active and passive 3D). Why passive? In my opinion it’s the better home option. The glasses are cheap and battery-free. The images have the least amount of crosstalk. The only real advantage that active 3D has over passive is that it preserves more of your screen’s resolution, but since I have a hard time telling the difference between 720P and 1080P anyway, that doesn’t concern me.
At the time, the choices were slim. LG made a 65 incher that was already a year old. Vizio had announced a 65 incher of their own, but I couldn’t find anywhere to see it in person. I wound up getting a brand new Sharp with active 3D. My preference for passive 3D wound up taking a backseat because the Sharp had everything else I was looking for — matte screen, great performance in daylight, good price for its size, etc. All those things were far more important to me than 3D. Besides, it was a brand new TV, so I figured the 3D couldn’t be that bad. Right?
Well, before I could test the 3D quality, I had to get some content. There was one movie I missed in theaters and avoided renting in 2D simply because I wanted to see it the way it was shot — in 3D. That movie was Hugo. I figured if Martin Scorsese felt the need to capture his vision with 3D cameras, I should at least watch it the way he intended. But I didn’t want to pay full price to buy the 3D blu-ray disc. How hard could renting a movie in 3D be?
Netflix offered Hugo in 2D, but that was it. They don’t offer any 3D movies. (Okay, technically they do, but good luck getting access to them.) DirecTV has a very limited selection of 3D content: an ESPN 3D channel that seems perpetually stuck on skateboarding, a channel called 3Net and its plethora of documentaries, and one pay-per-view channel that shows just one 3D movie at at a time. I checked the other streaming sources I had access to — iTunes, Hulu+, Crackle, Amazon Instant Video — and they were all bereft of 3D content.
Okay, no biggie. I could just leave my house. You know, like the old days.
The closest video rental shop to me is in West Hollywood… which is precisely why I’d never gone in there before. Don’t get me wrong, I think West Hollywood is a great part of town. Good restaurants, well-kept parks, very pet-friendly. What’s there not to like? I’d just always assumed this particular video store, like a fair portion of West Hollywood, was, um… not intended for people like me.
But it looked pretty big from the outside and it did have some posters for Hollywood hits in the window, so I figured it was worth a shot. I went in, and, yes they did have some actual mainstream movies… A whopping ten of them (or so it seemed). The rest of the store’s collection rested behind a curtain. I imagined many a young man ventured behind that curtain in search of something 3D… but I figured my best shot at finding the movie Hugo (and not some dude named Hugo) lay elsewhere.
The closest video store to me that did carry 3D blu-rays was another 4 miles away. So off I went, bravely crossing the 405 freeway in the process (which makes a 4 mile journey feel like a 40 mile one). They had several 3D movies, but, sadly, Hugo was checked out. I wasn’t going to leave empty-handed, though, so I picked up Prometheus. Ridley Scott is no Martin Scorsese, but it was shot in 3D, and Scott is on the record of saying that’s how he intended the film to be seen. Then came the weirdest part of the trip: The girl behind the counter didn’t even know it was possible to watch 3D movies at home.
She works at a video store.
That rents 3D movies.
And she didn’t know 3D TVs existed.
I could hear the collective sobbing of HDTV marketing execs everywhere. She was their worst nightmare. (Granted, she was also the kind of girl who didn’t even own a TV, but still…)
Home I went. I popped in the Blu-Ray disc, put on the single pair of 3D glasses I owned (purchasing of a 2nd $50 pair was based entirely on the outcome of this try-out), and… proceeded to calibrate the TV for the next 1/2 hour.
Here’s the thing about active 3D, something I hadn’t been warned about: It’s extremely fickle. Or, at least, this set was. I COULD get an excellent image, but it took some work. TV’s with active 3D have a setting that allows you to adjust the “3D depth.” It sounds like a personal preference for how profound of a 3D effect you want. But it’s not. It’s actually intended to control crosstalk by allowing you select the virtual midpoint of the 3D plane. Not only did different movies require different settings, but I had to adjust it from scene to scene of the same movie. Every time Prometheus went from a wide angle shot to a close-up, I’d have to readjust the 3D depth to account for the different kind of shot, or else the image would be too blurry. Is this a problem for all active 3D tv sets? I’d imagine not. I have read some good reviews of active 3D TV sets. But my guess is that whenever you read a review of a TV and the reviewer says it suffers from too much “crosstalk” (the most common complaint among active sets), this is the culprit. The end result for me: The 3D was pretty much unusable. Not only did I not buy a 2nd pair of glasses, I returned the pair I had.
Thus ended my grand desire to watch 3D at home… ’til last week.
MY SECOND 3D TV
I needed to replace another TV at home. Since this TV wasn’t the one we’d use for serious movie watching, I didn’t care as much about features. The only feature I wanted to make sure it had was passive 3D. And the cheapest TV I could find with passive 3D was a Vizio, a brand not known for high-end performance. It wasn’t even one of their newer models, but one from last year that was still on the shelf at a local Costco.
I set it up, turned it on, and immediately gave the 3D a try, tuning to 3Net. All they had on was a documentary on how to make firetrucks, but it was enough to tell the 3D was WAY better than on the much more expensive Sharp. Were the colors slightly muted? Yeah, a little. Could I tell the image resolution took a hit? Sure, if I got close enough. But those were minor quibbles. Crosstalk was practically non-existent, and there’s no depth setting to worry about. This wasn’t just usable 3D, it was preferable. If I have a choice between a 2D movie and it’s (properly shot) 3D counterpart, I’d probably choose the 3D version.
And here’s where the story gets even better: I noticed the TV had the Vudu streaming service built-in. I had never tried Vudu before, so I loaded it up, surprised to see that they actually had a half-decent selection of 3D movies.
The only downside: a lot of the really good movies were available for purchase only (as opposed to renting). But it’s great seeing a company really make an effort to offer up 3D options. They even let you preview the first 2 minutes of each movie for free before purchase/rental. That’s a really nice touch.
3D has come a long way in just three years, unfortunately most consumers will never know it. I’m not going to say it’s too late for 3D to make another comeback, though, because that would be, well… stupid. The technology has been left for dead more times than Michael Myers (the slasher film villain, not the guy who killed comedy). The biggest knock against home 3D right now is that it’s inessential to the viewing experience. But you know what else is inessential to the viewing experience? Surround sound. Heck, even color was once viewed as a gimmick. The holy grail for TV quality will always be an image so lifelike, you can’t distinguish the screen from a window, and some form of 3D will definitely be a part of that. Don’t believe me, go to your nearest Sony Store and check out the passive 3D on their newest (and extremely expensive) “4K” sets. The 3D experience rivals that of the best theaters. I’d even say it surpasses the experience in theaters because it’s more intimate. It’s the closest thing we have now to a “window-like experience” (though still far from it) and it’s currently the gold standard in home entertainment. 4K passive 3D might not be the future because it still requires glasses, but it’s definitely the near future; a stopgap until the next tech breakthrough comes around, allowing us to finally have a true window-like image without the need for anything but our eyes.*
In the meantime, for anyone actually wanting to view the occasional 3D movie to see them the way they were intended, LG and Vizio make good, affordable passive sets that I highly recommend.
Oh, and for those wondering, I still haven’t seen Hugo.*Or maybe the solution will be to bypass the eyes entirely and beam images directly into the visual cortex of our brains… hmm…