TV  MAKERS  READY  TO  TEST  DEPTHS OF  3D  MARKET


LAS VEGAS, JANUARY 15, 2009
(STAR) (AP) — This is supposedly the year 3D television becomes the hot new thing: Updated sets and disc players are coming out, and 3D cable channels are in the works. But it’s not clear the idea will reach out and grab mainstream viewers.

Besides having to spring for expensive new TVs, people would have to put on awkward special glasses to give the picture the illusion of depth. That limits 3D viewing to times when viewers can sit down and focus on a movie or show.

It’s one thing to put on 3D glasses in a theater, but “at home, you’re with other people in the living room, running to the kitchen and doing other things,” said Greg Ireland of the research firm IDC.

Unfazed by the potential hang-ups, the biggest TV makers began revealing their 3D models before the official opening of the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics Co.’s consumer division, said in an interview that 10 to 14 percent of the roughly 35 million TVs sold in the US this year will be 3D-capable.

Samsung is determined to make 3D a big feature on its more expensive TVs this year. It’s teaming with DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. to make the Blu-ray 3D version of the movie “Monsters vs Aliens” an exclusive for buyers of Samsung’s 3D TVs.

Panasonic Corp. said it will debut four 3D sets this spring, but they won’t be LCD sets, the most common type of flat panel. Instead, Panasonic is using plasma panels, saying the viewing quality will be superior to 3D on LCDs.

Sony Corp. said its 3D sets will be out this summer. Some will come with glasses, others will be “3D ready,” which means that buyers will have to complement with a separate plug-in device and glasses for 3D viewing.

LG Electronics Inc. said it will introduce 47-inch and 55-inch flat-panel TVs with 3D capabilities in May.

LG didn’t announce exact prices for its new sets. But Tim Alessi, director of product development at LG Electronics USA, said 3D TV sets will likely cost $200 to $300 more than comparable flat-panel sets without 3D capabilities, which already run more than $1,000.

Even Vizio Inc., one of the TV market share leaders in the US but mainly sells inexpensive sets, said it would have 3D capabilities on its larger, higher-end sets.

Manufacturers aren’t counting on 3D to take over instantly. Color TV and high definition caught on over many years. Like those earlier advances, 3D programming requires upgrades throughout the TV and movie infrastructure, from shooting to editing to distribution. Incidentally, Samsung and Dreamworks are working with Technicolor, which pioneered color movies, to get 3D right.

Of course, movies in 3D have been around since the 1950s and from time to time have been billed as the next big thing in entertainment. And technically speaking, 3D viewing in the home has been possible for the past few years. But there has been no good way to get 3D movies and shows to watch.

That obstacle is being swept away this year, as plans for a 3D version of the Blu-ray disc have solidified. Players are expected this spring. Also, satellite broadcaster DirecTV Inc. said it will send out software upgrades to most of its set-top boxes in June that will enable 3D reception.

Two major cable networks — ESPN and Discovery — said they plan to start beaming 3D entertainment into homes for the first time.

ESPN plans to have its channel running in time to show World Cup soccer matches in 3D on June 11. Discovery Communications Inc. will partner with Imax Corp. and Sony to bring out its own full-time 3D network in 2011.

Samsung isn’t waiting for 3D programming: It said its sets will be able to convert standard 2D programming to 3D on the fly. The effect likely won’t be as good as original 3D footage, but it will “tide consumers over” until there is more 3D programming, Baxter said.

Toshiba is taking the same tack. It plans to roll out a new line of five TVs this year that will perform the 2D to 3D conversion in a separate box with a powerful processor similar to one used in the Sony PlayStation 3. Like the other manufacturers, Toshiba didn’t announce prices for the sets, but they will probably be expensive.

TV manufacturers, movie studios and broadcasters are counting on the excitement around the latest wave of 3D movies in theaters to finally drive interest in adapting the technology for the home. In particular, James Cameron’s “Avatar” has set a new standard for 3D in movies and has surpassed $1 billion at the box office. It demonstrates that 3D is viable for more than just computer-animated children’s or family movies such as “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”

“The hopes of the industry have undoubtedly been raised by the success of `Avatar,”’ said NPD analyst Ross Rubin.

But it’s not clear people will be eager to pony up the premium prices for 3D in the home — at least for a few years — or even that the experience will translate well from the movie theater to the living room. (It is possible to do 3D TV without glasses, but those solutions usually require viewers to keep their heads in one particular place. The image quality is also lower.)

Viewing 3D discs will require new Blu-ray players that could cost a few hundred dollars, to the possible annoyance of people who invested in regular Blu-ray players in the past several years. However, PlayStation 3 owners are in luck: Sony says that a free software upgrade will enable them to play 3D movies.

It may also be difficult to tempt shoppers to buy new TVs after the flat-panel binge of the last few years.

Analyst Riddhi Patel at iSuppli Corp. said one target market would probably be people who have moved the flat panels they bought a few years ago into their bedrooms and now want new sets for their living rooms.

Or TV makers can count on hitting the mainstream later and aim for enthusiasts first — people such as Michael Pearce, 39, a supervisor at a biotechnology company.

Pearce loves the thrill of new electronics even though his family tells him he’s gone overboard. He says he has bought 12 flat-screen TVs in the last three years and sells the old ones on eBay whenever he upgrades.

“I like to see how they push the envelope. I like to see what’s next,” he said. “3D TV is like, wow. You have to go to the movies for that.”


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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