Panasonic's Nagging 3D Question: What Comes After Blu-ray?

3D TV hardware still has a ways to go, but Panasonic's vision is starting to congeal: It will require glasses, and—at least for some content—it will be awesome. But hey, hold on, quick question! What will we watch?

I spent a few minutes planted in front of Panasonic's latest 3D TV hardware, and that was the first question that came to mind. I saw a similar demo reel to the one Mark saw back at CES, displayed with the same technology—Panny's "3D Full HD" system, which imperceptibly flickers between left and right video data channels to maintain genuine 1080p content. Since then, their first 3D Blu-ray player has come out of its shell, albeit in a disguised preproduction form seen above, and their demo unit has grown: Hello, 103-inch superscreen.

The added size helped on a few fronts, making the viewing experience feel less distant, and less like, as Mark put it, "work." It was still clear, though, that some types of content were an awkward fit for Panasonic's—and probably anyone else's—3D standard. Shots where everything is in focus, for example, were unnatural and disorienting, and hard to fix my eyes on. The preview for Up! was chock-full of artificial depth of field effects that, despite being programmed for 3D display, somehow felt a little off.

Live filmed events, be it basketball or the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, were where the system really shined. No doubt helped by the fact that the TV was the size of a upturned car, these segments actually felt immersive—an effect which it seems like moviemakers should be able to replicate, once they've gotten used to how to film for 3D.

But therein lies a huge, looming problem: as it stands, the 3D content starts and stops at feature films, and specifically, Blu-ray. That's it. Pressed about the prospect of 3D TV content, Panasonic's VP of Consumer Electronics Bob Perry, couldn't come anywhere close to making promises: From here, it's up to the content providers to decide if they want to give their customers 3D. According to Perry, they will, but the day when cable companies or now-fledgling IPTV firms jump on board is firmly in the future. For now, the outlook is a lot like it was for full 1080p video back when it first hit the stage: the display tech is ready, but the content won't be there for a while. Remember, there are still only a handful of ways to get real 1080p content on your TV now; 3D, at least for a few years, will be way more niche than a simple resolution bump ever was.

That said, there's still time. Panasonic's mum on release dates, since they haven't even announced a specific product line yet, but the story's going to go something like this: They'll release their first wave of 3D sets next year, all plasma, and all at about 50 inches and up, with accompanying Blu-ray players. And there will be movies to watch on them, but anything beyond that is totally up in the air. One way to look at this is that 2010 will be the year that usable 3D hardware hits the mainstream; another, that 2010 is the year that the content-producing world either chooses to let 3D TVs live, or they don't.

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