NEW YORK —
As the first of the 2011 3DTVs start to arrive in retail stores, the consumer electronics industry finds itself in the throes of a new consumer format conundrum — passive or active-shutter 3D glasses?
TVs compatible with the 3D Blu-ray Disc standard first appeared last year, all using so-called active-shutter glasses. These glasses are battery powered and actively switch on and off the left- and right-eye views in alternating sequence to produce 3D images, in some cases in Full 1080p HD resolution. All were launched with great fanfare and promotion, but saw lukewarm (1.3 million units overall) sell-through numbers at the end of the year.
Some consumer studies traced this to, in part, a general rejection to the notion of wearing expensive special glasses to get the 3D effect.
One year later, a new crop of 3DTVs based on passiveglasses 3D technology (also known as Film Patterned Retarder, FPR technology) are being positioned by a handful of manufacturers as the savior of the stereoscopic revolution.
The technology is said to address most of the concerns consumers have expressed about active-shutter 3D glasses: cost, discomfort, cross-talk artifacts and style challenges.
But experts have said active shutter has the edge in brightness and delivering higher-resolution images, while LG’s FPR tech is cheaper, lighter and more comfortable to wear.
The first hints of what may follow came last December, after Vizio first introduced a 65-inch LCD flat-panel display based on passive-glasses 3D technology. The company reported unexpectedly heavy demand. Supplies quickly sold out, leaving the company to gear up more volume while expanding the line to a wider assortment of screen sizes.
Although its passive-glasses 3D LCD TVs don’t require expensive battery-powered active-shutter glasses, Vizio has positioned the technology as its premium 3DTV offering, listing the 65-inch set at a $3,500 suggested retail.
This takes into account the added bill of materials required to build the technology into the set.
In contrast, LG Electronics, which is shipping the first of its passive 3D TVs (called Cinema 3D) sets to market now, has positioned passive 3D LCD TVs as its entry into the 3D mix, offering active-shutter glasses technology in step-up LCD TV and plasma TV lines.
Passive 3D LCD “is a better experience overall, more like you get in the cinema,” said James Fishler, LG go-tomarket operations senior VP, adding: “We’ll keep activeshutter 3D in our lineup, though. At the high end, with all the other bells and whistles, it’s a different experience.”
Toshiba, which will ship its first passive sets soon, is also positioning the technology at the entry end of its stereoscopic 3D assortment. The company will keep active- shutter models as its higher performers. In Japan the company is also selling large-screen auto-stereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D LCD TVs, but has no plans for that in the U.S. at this time.
Meanwhile, Samsung threw a wild card into the game at International CES when it announced a hybrid technology that places active-shutter switching in the panel, enabling viewers to wear passive polarized glasses like those used in FPR sets.
DisplaySearch’s Paul Gagnon, North American TV research director, called Samsung’s approach “active retarder” technology because it uses a second LCD panel to actively switch polarization.
“It’s kind of a best-of-both-worlds approach using lowcost glasses, but without a resolution hit,” Gagnon said, pointing out that one of the big drawbacks of LG’s FPR passive 3D approach is that it cuts resolution in half. “These will probably debut as the highest performance 3DTVs, giving the industry a good-better-best strategy, although there will be fierce debate this year as to whether passive- or active-shutter glass 3D is the good or better candidate, depending on brand viewpoint. We probably won’t see active-retarder-type 3D sets until next year, and they will be expensive.”
Meanwhile, Sony and Samsung continue to stick to active-shutter LCD 3D displays, although LG executives in Korea recently mentioned that they have engaged additional manufacturers including Sony in discussions about adopting FPR 3D LCD panels.
In its quest to reign supreme atop the 3D TV market, LG is offering passive 3D sets at low adoption prices despite a potentially higher manufacturing cost.
“Cost is definitely an issue here, and while passive sets will have a lower total cost than active when accounting for four pairs of glasses being included, some 120Hz active 3D LCD TV sets will be available that could have the lowest absolute cost of the set since no glasses are included,” Gagnon told TWICE. “This would be an option for consumers just looking to future-proof their set, without jumping fully into 3D from the start.”
Guido Voltolina, COO of 3D glasses manufacturer Xpand, which makes active-shutter 3D glasses solutions, said he found it somewhat ironic that LG Electronics, which has a large plasma TV production interest, would lead the charge for passive 3D technology. Currently, the passive 3D system does not work economically with plasma technology, and plasma sets are top active-shutter 3D performers, due to their faster switching speeds.
“Plasma is already active compatible without any additional cost,” Voltolina observed. “It is always important to see the impact on 2D viewing performance, when adding any 3D technology. Taking away performance in 2D is less likely to have wide acceptance as the majority of the content will be viewed that way.”
So where does this leave plasma? At least for now, FPR technology has not been applied to plasma displays, but Samsung and LG are applying active-shutter 3D technology to 720p resolution plasma models to lower the cost and push adoption.
“3D was important for plasma, but not the driver of the strong growth in 2010,” Gagnon observed. “The 2010 plasma growth rebound was attributable to low-cost 720p models, not high-end 3D 1080p models. We are expecting the plasma market to start slowly contracting in 2011, but the 3D share will grow.”
While 720p 3D plasma should be popular in 2011, “most models of 3D plasma will be 1080p,” Gagnon said.
To date, virtually all of the 3DTV activity has been applied to screen sizes measuring 42 inches and larger. Gagnon believes that will continue to be the case for the most part for the next few years.