3D TV: The shape of things to come...

From sport to soaps, its disciples believe it will revolutionise the way we watch. But is 3D TV really a giant leap forward in entertainment – or could it be an expensive flop? David McNeill reports

So you're sitting down for your daily helping of soap opera, you don a pair of 3D specs in front of your 100-inch plasma TV and the mundane dramas of EastEnders are transformed. Cars in Albert Square seem to park themselves in your living room, pints at the Queen Vic fly over the counter and threaten to poke you in the eye; Roxy Mitchell's blonde mane seems to tickle your chin.

It might take a few years for three-dimensional technology to reach EastEnders, but the future is already on the way. Just this weekend, Sky broadcast the clash between Arsenal and Manchester United in 3D – an event that the satellite broadcaster claimed was the first live 3D TV sports transmission to a public audience. But the match was only screened in 3D in nine British pubs. When can we enjoy this technology in our own homes? Soon, if Japan's consumer electronics' giants are to be believed. Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba are all set to roll out 3D TVs and accessories this year in a bid to capitalise on the global popularity of James Cameron's sci-fi eco-opera Avatar and to satiate the growing appetite for 3D television.

Several more companies have prototypes lined up in an industry that badly needs a hit product to chase away the economic blues. "The 3D train is on the track, and we at Sony are ready to drive it home," trumpeted Sony CEO Howard Stringer last autumn. But will consumers fork out for yet more living-room hardware, and most crucial of all – will there be anything to watch?

Sony leads with the summer launch of a 3D TV equipped with a transmitter that sends a signal to specially designed glasses. Forget the cardboard bi-coloured specs of old – Sony's battery-powered glasses boast special chip-controlled lenses with shutters that flicker on and off, giving the illusion of three dimensionality.

Later this year, the company also plans to debut 3D-compatible Blu-ray players. And spokesman George Boyd says PlayStation 3 owners will be able to download software for 3D games and DVDs, for a fee of course.

After so many industry misfires – remember HD DVD? – Sony is keen to dispel fears that 3D TV is just a temporary fad that will soon be gathering dust with last year's home karaoke machine. The company is betting big, aiming to make 40 per cent of its TVs 3D-compatible by 2011 and retooling for a showdown with rivals Panasonic and Toshiba. Stringer has ordered Sony's games division and its film studios in Culver City, LA to join the fray.

A Sony 3D technology centre to train directors and cinematographers in its use is also planned, says Boyd, who points out that much of Avatar was shot using Sony cameras."We're in a unique position of having everything from the broadcasting and the film side of things, to the consumer products side, and we have games too." Sony is aiming for 1trn yen (£6.9bn) in sales from 3D-related products by 2013.

Not to be outdone, Panasonic is about to launch its three-dimensional television, DVD player and glasses this spring, initially in the US then Europe and elsewhere. Couch potatoes should also brace themselves for a 152-inch 3D Panasonic TV, currently available only in prototype but coming to lay waste to eyeballs soon, promises spokeswoman Kyoko Ishii.

The company, which has set a sales target of one million 3D TVs by Christmas, has enlisted the promotional support of Cameron: clips from Avatar will be screened on Panasonic's TVs around the world in a bid to persuade consumers to fork out for the hardware. "I believe 3D is how we will experience movies, gaming and computing in the near future," said Cameron after he signed the deal.

Toshiba, meanwhile, has developed a hi-tech version of its Regza LCD television, which can screen either two- or three-dimensional images and handle multiple formats. South Korea's Samsung Electronics and Hyundai have already launched their own 3D TVs in Japan and elsewhere.

Analysts have questioned the wisdom of launching this technological armada amid one of the leanest economic times on record. But manufacturers must innovate or die and they are gambling that with consumers increasingly staying at home, they'll invest in new entertainment systems. And gambling big: Stringer may not survive at troubled Sony if 3D fails.

Most are coy about the price tag – Panasonic's Ishii says 3D TVs will "not be much" more expensive than conventional televisions. Most observers expect the entire set-up to retail for less than 1m yen (about £8,000). Ishii says her company doesn't see consumers replacing their old equipment. "3D will be an addition to the home, perhaps in one room with a conventional TV in another."

With the sale of all new hardware, however, comes the inevitable question – what about the software? One blockbuster movie does not a trend make, and 3D has a long history of crashing and burning once the novelty has worn off. Sony has announced content licenses with the Discovery Channel and PGA Golf. "We plan to film a series of golf tournaments this year," says Boyd. Sharp is one of a number of companies that has a 3D prototype but is waiting till content is more advanced.

And how long will it be before content catches up? Although Hollywood is becoming acquainted with the new technology, think about the arduous process of transforming the entire television and movie industries from D to 3D. And the transformation depends ultimately on consumers being prepared to sit with their families wearing strange, ill-fitting eyewear. Fans of Albert Square will have to watch them pints at the Vic served up in plain old two dimensions – at least for now.

Specs appeal: The new 3D glasses

The first 3D film enjoyed by a paying audience – and the premiere for those distinctive red and cyan glasses too – was The Power of Love in 1922, at the Ambassador Hotel Theatre in Los Angeles. The film used the anaglyph 3D system, where different coloured filters for each eye make the image pop into a glorious third dimension.

Although these square paper glasses with flimsy colourful lenses are what we might most readily associate with 3D, as early as the 1950s we'd moved to donning glasses with polarizing lenses instead. A 3D effect is created by projecting the same scene to both eyes, but from slightly different perspectives. Bwana Devil, the first of a new wave of successful stereoscopic movies in 1952, was viewed through some basic paper glasses with polarizing lenses, but they paved the way for the ones we've been watching Avatarthrough.

Those plastic-framed, grey-tinted RealD chunky glasses you swiped from a cinema are no use if you're thinking of getting a 3D TV though. Home technology at the moment veers towards active shutter glasses, which sync with your TV via infra red. They contain liquid crystals that make the filters go black when voltage is applied, and shutter on and off rapidly – around 120 times per second – blocking your left and right eye alternately. But they're pricey. Active shutter glasses will cost around £100, which on top of buying a 3D TV can add up, especially if you've got a large family or plan to watch TV with all your mates (TVs are likely to come with a pair as a package). Battery-powered active glasses are also usually chunkier than passive ones. Definitely ones to avoid sitting on or losing down the back of the sofa.

While all systems promise that 3D is the future of technology, when it comes to the issue of style, 3D glasses hardly seem to be leading the way. Although the disposable RealD specs might claim a certain geek-chic, they are essentially naff and prone to fall off your face, and while the pricier active shutter ones have some sci-fi gadgetry appeal they're also fairly cumbersome, with coloured frames offering a pretty basic stab at personal style. But the expanding 3D industry hasn't been unaware of the ugliness of its eyewear. Rumours were sparked late last year by RealD founder Michael Lewis talking about designer 3D glasses, even name-checking Gucci. It's good news too for people with prescription glasses (who normally have to squash a 3D pair over their regulars and try to rock the six-eyes look), as bespoke 3D glasses could include your prescription. The makers of Ray-Ban sunglasses also announced in 2008 they were developing specs with stereoscopic lenses in a Wayfarers frame. Chris Nobles has designed 3D glasses especially for TV: his aviator-style frames look retro, but in a sleek hipster way. All of which are bound to bump up the cost up even more, but at least you'll be able to look stylish, or perhaps like you've got money to burn. Holly Williams

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