How to get stereoscopic content without overhauling the rest of your home theatre
You may, in the next few years, purchase a 3D TV and not even realise it. In 2010, the first wave of 3D TVs hit the market with much fanfare, but customers largely yawned; the sets sold at a premium, stereoscopic content was limited, and the glasses required to view 3D were complicated, uncomfortable and expensive. Tech pundits declared 3D TV stillborn. But a funny thing has happened in the past two years: a growing number of manufacturers have started to integrate 3D functionality into their sets as a matter of course. What was once a premium option is becoming the norm.
Now, just because your new set has 3D functionality, that hardly means you have to use it. I expect most 3D sets will spend the majority of their time displaying flat video, as most 3D sets are also no-compromise 2D sets. But leave a bunch of glasses splayed out on your living room coffee table and family members are bound to get curious. What can we watch with these things? Is there a way to get a little stereoscopic entertainment without shelling out a fortune for discs and extra components?
Before we can answer the question of what to watch, it’s worth asking: do I have the right equipment to watch 3D? For sure, you’ve got the TV, but if it were up to the electronics industry, the purchase of a 3D TV would trigger a secondary
buying binge of a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, a new home theatre system and maybe even a 3D video camera. The good
news is that the price of 3D components has dropped significantly; the better news is that you might not need anything new at all. If you have a PlayStation 3, a firmware update in 2010 already upgraded your console to play 3D Blu-rays. And it’s not even necessary to buy into the Blu-ray ecosystem at all because there are cheaper, easier ways to find 3D video. But you sort of get what you pay for.
3D for free
If you’ve purchased a 3D television, it is likely also an Internet-connected, app-enabled “smart TV”, a bit of echnological overlap that is convenient for the 3D dabbler. Such TVs are available from LG, Samsung, Sony and Panasonic. Internet connectivity opens up some options for viewing 3D content directly from the TV itself with no extra equipment. The home screen of the LG Infinia 47-inch set I recently purchased proudly promises instant access to 3D videos with its 3D World app. The app and its odd assortment of 3D clips are free, but require an account registration with LG. The randomness of the 3D offerings seems to defy categorisation, yet LG has attempted to construct channels: Japanese pro wrestling is the top selection in Sports, while a 2-minute tour of New York City shot entirely in Times Square is filed under Travel. (There is also at least one bait-and-switch – a listing for The Mentalist was not the CBS cop/psychic show but a short clip of a magician performing an act of comically inept levitation.) The shame of the 3D World app is that the footage actually sells the set short. It’s not only terrible content, but the stereoscopic effect is awful, routinely giving the viewer double vision.
It’s worth mentioning, briefly anyway, that the easiest way to experience 3D on any of these sets is by activating the now common 2D-to-3D conversion feature. Most TVs do a pretty good job of discerning foreground from background, but the effect is still a bit uncanny; 3D at its best uses depth to add a sense of visual context (think of the difference between the inside of a cramped lift and the inside of a big rail terminal), and the conversion technology seems to make all spaces feel equally deep.
Perhaps the best free 3D delivery vehicle is in hiding on many of these smart sets: YouTube. For three years, YouTube has cultivated a 3D channel for depth-perception enthusiasts. The channel allows users to upload and even edit footage in 3D, then display it in either anaglyph (red and cyan) or a format that conforms to 3D standards that televisions can understand. YouTube has worked with LG, Samsung and others to ensure that its apps on those manufacturers’ HDTVs work, but no one has really promoted it. Much of the content is what you’d expect from a site that relies on the general public for content – 3D YouTubers seem to enjoy poking objects into the camera – but often the 3D effect, if not the storytelling, is surprisingly good.
3D worth paying for
The most expensive way to experience 3D entertainment on your new set is to buy 3D Blu-rays, and there’s no denying that a properly mastered 3D Blu-ray movie or game looks fantastic. Hollywood studios have not yet given up on the concept of premium pricing for 3D movies, but it should provide some comfort that newrelease 3D Blu-rays can be purchased on Amazon for far less than their R300-plus sticker prices. Even cheaper are 3D Imax documentaries, which can be had for less than R200.
Can’t you just rent these things? Not through traditional routes. The best way to get 3D movies instantly is through Vudu, a streaming service that is built into many sets from LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba. Vudu offers a decent selection of over-the-Internet 3D movies, including big releases such as Tron: Legacy and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Many of the latest hits are for purchase only (although prices are around R180, which is typically cheaper than 3D Blu-rays).
Finally, in some parts of the world there’s a small selection of content from television providers. Theoretically, 3D content can be sent for free over the airwaves; in practice, no one is doing that. But satellite operators are among those offering a limited selection of on-demand content and/or dedicated 3D channels (for example, ESPN 3D, 3Dnet). Special events, such as recent coverage of the Olympics, have been shown in 3D, and some service providers offer 3D on-demand movies.
Active shutter glasses
Active and passive 3D TVs cost about the same, but battery-powered active shutter glasses are heavy and expensive. They do have better off-angle 3D viewing and show fewer jagged-edge artefacts.
Passive polarised glasses
Passive glasses are used on some sets from LG, for instance. They are lighter and cheaper. Since the glasses are not as dark, passive sets appear brighter. In our tests, the 3D effect starts to break down when viewed off-centre.