TV rivals boldly bet on 3-D

Technological shift swift, but will content and consumers keep up?


Television viewers will be carried into a new dimension this year when they shed their old sets and go 3-D.

Momentum for 3-D TVs has been heating up, helped by trendy box-office hits like “Avatar” as well as displays by many major electronics makers of 3-D TV technology at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s biggest electronics trade show.

Facing tough global competition, particularly with South Korean rivals, Japanese TV manufacturers are jockeying for the lead in advanced 3-D technology.

Although it is still unclear if 3-D functions will be totally embraced by consumers, Japanese makers are working with content providers to spearhead the movement.

Panasonic Corp., the world leader in the plasma TV market, announced Feb. 9 that its 3-D TVs and 3-D-enabled Blu-ray recorders will debut in Japan on April 23.

“Today, Panasonic will again offer a new dimension in TV life,” Shiro Nishiguchi, director in charge of Panasonic audio-video products in Japan, told a news conference last week.

Panasonic will offer the Viera VT2 3-D plasma TVs with 50- and 54-inch screens. Prices are expected to be range between ¥430,000 and ¥530,000. Panasonic said it is expecting to hold a technical advantage with its signature plasma display panel.

The technology for 3-D entails high-speed alternating projection of images for the right and left eyes that viewers capture by wearing specially colored glasses that work in concert with the opening and closing images.

A plasma display panel produces luminescence on its own, whereas liquid crystal display panels draw their luminescence from backlighting.

The self-illuminating plasma display can respond quickly to moving images, so it can reduce duplicated lines created when the 3-D TV is producing images for the left and right eyes alternately.

Because of concerns that the special glasses may pose adverse health effects, including eye fatigue and dizziness, Panasonic said it has been carrying out research and will include usage guidelines with its products, including what it deems are the appropriate safe distance and position for viewers wearing the glasses.

The guideline will be following a safety guideline, which complies International Organization for Standardization, created by 3D Consortium, an organization consists of various companies related to 3D business. Sony Corp., which in 2008 held the No. 2 global market share for flat-screen TVs, is also readying 3-D sets.

The company began displaying 3-D technology at the Sony Building in Ginza, Tokyo, on Jan. 21, giving the public a chance to experience it by watching TV and playing video games.

Extra glasses will be ¥10,000 each

Staff writer

While manufacturers are actively promoting a new 3-D TV lifestyle, consumers will be required — at least a few years — to use special glasses expected to cost about ¥10,000.

In fact, 3-D TV’s success will depend on how well consumers warm to the glasses, observers say.

“I think one main hurdle is wearing the glasses,” Masayuki Ito, senior manager of TV and network division at Toshiba Corp., told The Japan Times earlier this month.

The glasses won’t be cheap, like those made out of cardboard with blue and red transparent sheets that have been handed out in theaters. The pricier home-use variety look like fashion sunglasses and are packed with technology.

To get the 3-D effect, the glasses must be worn so the right and left eyes can get the alternating high-speed images. Going without the glasses will result in blurred images.

Panasonic Corp., which will start selling 3-D TVs in Japan on April 23, will also be the first to offer the special glasses.

One pair will be included per TV, and extras will have to be purchased separately. While the price will be up to retailers, Panasonic is expecting them to run about ¥10,000.

It is not clear if consumers will want to have to wear the bulky eyewear.

Ito of Toshiba said, “3-D movies are getting popular, and people don’t feel uneasy about wearing the glasses at theaters because they go there knowing that they will be wearing them.”

But whether they want to don the frames while relaxing at home is another question. This will pose a challenge to glasses manufacturers.

People in the industry say it may take several years before people will be able to view 3-D TV without special eyewear.

“It is probably the first time we display something whose market debut has yet to be decided,” Sony spokesman Shinji Obana said.

“One thing we can say for sure is that seeing is believing. We would like people to see the quality of 3-D TV.”

Cutting-edge technology allows 3-D images to appear in high-definition quality. The images are clear and the sense of depth is strong, giving viewers the feeling they are in the middle of the action.

Consumers can also view standard programs on 3-D TVs.

Sony’s 3-D TVs are scheduled to be available in the U.S. this summer, while their Japan debut is undecided but expected sometime this year.

Obana said Sony will tap the synergy effect of its group companies. For instance, the company plans to provide 3-D-enabled upgrades for the PlayStation 3 through its online network as well as in collaboration with Sony Pictures.

Although the momentum for 3-D TV is growing, it is still uncertain how widely consumers will warm to the technology, especially at initial prices.

A crucial element will be content.

Akira Kadota, manager of overseas media relations at Panasonic, said when the TV image quality was enhanced from standard definition to high-definition, TV makers swiftly shifted to HDTV but content was slow to follow.

Learning from that experience, Panasonic is now collaborating with content providers from an early stage to expand 3-D productions.

Panasonic has tied up with DirecTV, a U.S.-based satellite broadcasting company that provides service to more than 18.4 million customers in the U.S., in an effort to promote 3-D TVs and content.

DirecTV high-definition users will receive a free upgrade to access three 3-D channels starting in June.

Panasonic may start selling 3-D TVs in the U.S. next month.

“When introducing a new format, just producing the TV won’t really facilitate the spread. It is important that soft content expands as well. We are not content providers, but this point cannot be ignored,” Kadota said.

ESPN plans to broadcast 3-D programs in June, and Sony will be teaming up with the Discovery Channel and IMAX to run 3-D content on TV in 2011.

In Japan, Nippon BS Broadcasting Corp. is currently broadcasting 3-D content, and in August so will Sky Perfect Jsat Corp., a cable broadcasting company. Jupiter Telecommunications Co. said it will do so in April.

As content providers prepare for the dimensional change, Japanese makers appear eager to lead the market with 3-D value, considering that flat-screen TVs have been getting progressively cheaper on the domestic market.

While Japan’s 3-D pioneers aim to challenge flat-screen TV market leader Samsung Electronics Inc., their South Korean rival is not sitting still. The firm reportedly plans to release its own 3-D TVs next month.

Pushing 3-D TVs as a niche industry can energize the market, so competition with foreign makers is welcome, said Yuichi Sekiguchi, who manages Toshiba’s global marketing department TV group.

“We need to keep providing new value to customers,” Sekiguchi said.

Toshiba is also looking to enter the 3-D TV market and plans to release products in the U.S. and Europe this fall. Its Japan debut remains undecided.

Toshiba will use its Cell Broadband Engine, a high-performance processor jointly developed with IBM and Sony that can articulately process sound and moving images, for its 3-D TVs.

The company is also looking into marketing TVs for the U.S. that can transform 2-D content into 3-D.

In terms of providing new value, “a 3-D TV is really interesting as a trigger. And the movement is being pushed by not just one company, but the industry is trying to turn it into a standard,” Sekiguchi said. “We expect the TV industry to move in a good direction.”