Email | Print    Type Size  -  +

In living color - and three dimensions!

Think HDTV looks good? Just wait till you see 3-D TV - coming soon to the home theater in your living room.

Last Updated: September 4, 2008: 2:06 PM EDT

Samsung offers a 3-D-ready TV.
Philips' 3-D monitor doesn't require glasses - but is pricey.
Journey to the Center of the Earth will be released on CD in 3-D, but will require old-fashioned red-and-blue 3-D glasses.

(Fortune Magazine) -- No doubt you've heard that 3-D has become the thing at the multiplex, and that Hollywood bigs like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Robert Zemeckis, and James Cameron are making movies that capitalize on new digital-projection technologies.

What has received far less notice is that 3-D could well turn out to be an even bigger revolution for live broadcast TV. That's right: Journey to the Center of Your Living Room in 3-D.

The idea of sitting around your home wearing special glasses may sound cumbersome (and dorky). And right now there is a handful of 3-D sets for sale, but no programming to speak of. Plus - let's face it - it's hard to get jazzed about yet another new format of TV viewing while too many people still couldn't tell you whether 1080p is some kind of high-def TV or an IRS tax form. Besides that, count me among the skeptics who have considered 3-D movies a bit of a niche, if not a gimmick.

Yet - forgive me, literary gods - seeing is 3-lieving. A few weeks ago I found myself in a converted warehouse in Burbank, where a rig housing two cameras shot my image and transmitted it onto a flat-screen TV on the other side of the room. With the benefit of polarized glasses - the cheap clear-plastic ones you now put on when you go to a 3-D movie in a theater - I saw myself in three crisp dimensions, practically leaping out of the television at ... myself. I was visiting a small company called 3ality Digital, one of a bunch of players trying to push ahead with what is called stereoscopic broadcasting. The company's calling card is that it made the U2 3-D movie that wowed audiences last year. While it is working on other film projects, 3ality Digital is focusing on the much bigger potential market for live TV.

In fact, demos of live 3-D have been quietly gaining buzz around the TV world: Last year both the NBA All-Star game and a Dallas Mavericks game were broadcast on a closed-circuit feed using equipment from Pace, the company that Cameron helped start and whose equipment he uses to shoot in 3-D. At the International Broadcasting Conference in Amsterdam in September, Katzenberg is scheduled to deliver a keynote in 3-D live from Los Angeles via satellite and 3ality gear. "This is similar to where we were in 2003 with high-def," Chuck Pagano, executive VP of technology at ESPN, told me. "This is a big win for TV in general, because it is jaw-dropping when you see a football or basketball game in 3-D." (See correction.)

Indeed, one thing the first wave of Hollywood 3-D blockbusters clarified is that 3-D can't make a crummy movie good, but it might make a good movie better. With TV - particularly live TV - it enhances already proven programming. (The porn industry is also drooling over this, for obvious reasons.) As with all newfangled gadgetry, the big question is which standards will prevail: There are already several "3-D ready" displays on the market from the likes of Samsung and JVC, requiring different types of image coding and viewing glasses. In Japan one broadcaster is airing an hour a day in 3-D, and Philips (PHG) has a 3-D monitor for sale that does not require glasses but is, for now, too pricey for mass rollout. "I think the glasses are a necessary evil for the next few years," says Wendy Aylsworth, a Warner Bros. executive who is heading an entertainment industry group's efforts to set technical standards. Still, expect more and better 3-D TVs to be the buzz at next January's consumer electronics show.

ESPN's Pagano estimates the first 3-D broadcasts in the U.S. are three years away. But they might be sooner if Hollywood's 3-D craze gathers steam. Last month Disney's Best of Both Worlds 3-D concert film featuring Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana was aired on TV and released in DVD - but it used the old-timey 3-D format known as anaglyph, which requires those glasses with red and blue plastic lenses. That format works on current TVs - sort of: Unlike the crisp stereoscopic images seen on the big-screen version, the colors through anaglyph are pretty brutal. Similarly, Warner (which, like Fortune, is owned by Time Warner (TWX, Fortune 500)) is planning to release its recent Journey to the Center of the Earth in DVD, but also using anaglyph. That's the 3-D equivalent of releasing a color movie in black-and-white for home viewing. And for 3-D aficionados, that won't do: In TV's next big thing, the kid doesn't stay in the picture. He's practically sitting in your lap.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the surname of Charles Pagano and misidentified him. He is ESPN's executive VP of technology. Back to story. To top of page

More Galleries