Now that's reality TV: Samsung takes us into the next dimension

The Korean giant is going back to the future to create 3D vision that will propel golf balls from your screen. By Paul Rodgers in Suwon
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The Independent Online

'Fore!" When Tiger Woods smashes the ball straight for their heads, most people flinch – some duck – until the point-of-view pulls back to show trees hurtling past along the fairway. The simulacrum of the world's greatest golfer is a bit dodgy, but the ball he has just smacked at your head is convincing. And it will be sailing out of a screen in a living room near you by this summer. After a century and a half of intermittent research, three-dimensional television is so close, you may feel you can reach out and touch it.

Some people watching the demonstration at Samsung's digital media and telecoms research park in Suwon, an hour south of Seoul, do try to grab the animated images of approaching spacecraft, anthropomorphic cars and blobby aliens. It makes them look even sillier than the oversize goggles they have to wear to get the 3D effect. But the experience is so riveting that none of them cares. "It feels really real," declares one normally sceptical French technology journalist as he tries on the goggles for a third viewing.

The target early adopters for 3D TV are, anyway, the affluent young men who have redefined cool to include computer games. No longer geeky, this business will be worth $46.5bn (£23.6bn) by 2010, almost half as much as the $104bn filmed-entertainment market, and it's growing faster. High-end games, like most animated films today, are created using CGI (computer- generated images), and making them 3D is child's play: you just instruct the computer to calculate each frame from two slightly different angles. The result is an illusion of depth which, whether you're roaring around Monte Carlo in your F1 Ferrari or quarterbacking the Dallas Cowboys to NFL glory, makes a huge difference to the feel and enjoyment of a game.

That Samsung Electronics, the world's largest consumer electronics firm, should want to take the lead in 3D TV is not surprising. From entering the flat-screen sector 16 years ago, without any technical support from the Japanese companies that had pioneered liquid crystal displays, it has risen to sit among the dominant players in the industry. In Europe alone it is number one for TVs, with 22.3 per cent of the market.

And the company is just one of more than 50 that make up Samsung Group, South Korea's biggest conglomerate, responsible for fully one-fifth of the Asian Tiger's economy. That's 20 per cent of a big pie: Korea joined the trillion-dollar club in 2004 and today it has a GDP per head similar to Spain or Greece.

Size brings with it problems, however. To operate efficiently, different companies within the group have to act independently, sometimes developing incompatible strategies. For example, Kim Hunsuk, vice-president for research at the visual display division of Samsung Electronics, who still wears the company's tan and blue bomber jacket, sees no new niches for his product to exploit – a view not shared by the LCD division that supplies his screens. At Tangjung, 40 minutes from Seoul by high-speed train, close to 100 robotic production lines are churning out the latest LCD screens in pristine conditions – guests have to wear plastic slippers over their shoes just to look through windows at the sealed units on the shop floor. Here there is much talk about new uses for flexible flat screens, made with plastics instead of glass, such as compact screens to which you can download today's newspaper before rolling it up and carrying it to the Tube.

The family-owned chaebol – as South Korea's biggest conglomerates are known – has other woes. An independent counsel investigating corruption allegations against Samsung Group demanded that its reclusive chairman, Lee Kun-hee, his wife, Hong Ra-hee, and son, Lee Jae-yong, appear earlier this month to answer questions. Mr Lee was questioned for 11 hours during his first visit to the counsel's office, and was called back again a few days later. The investigation, into accusations made by the group's former top lawyer, Kim Yong-chul, involves an alleged 200 billion won (£100m) in slush funds, below-value sales of convertible bonds and the purchase by Mrs Hong of 60bn won of artworks in a single year. No charges have been laid, but the notoriety alone must be deeply upsetting for Mr Lee, who almost never speaks publicly.

In Suwon, however, no one wants to talk about the parent company's legal troubles. The fifth floor of the research centre is packed with flat screens, LCDs, plasmas and even a few organic light-emitting diodes, stacked inches apart, sometimes with the cases removed to reveal the circuit boards inside.

Lab benches seem to be in such short supply that three young techs have partially blocked the main corridor, just outside the glassed-in laboratory, with a trolley-mounted screen. Crouched round it, they conduct their tests oblivious to the gaggle of Western journalists filing by into a conference room where Michael Zöller, senior marketing manager for televisions at the European head office of Samsung Electronics, is explaining a chicken and egg problem: "Who's going to buy a 3D TV if there's no content for it, and who's going to make 3D content if no customers are equipped to watch it?"

Samsung Electronics is trying to break that impasse. Instead of waiting five or 10 years for the next generation of 3D technology to become widely available, it is bringing out a souped-up version of a very old technology in the hopes that when the switch comes, its brand will already be established as the dominant player.

Sir Charles Wheatstone, a Victorian scientist, invented stereo-scopy, as it is formally known, in 1840. Sir Charles recognised that 3D vision is an illusion created by the brain using various clues, most importantly the stereoscopic images collected by the eyes. Hold a finger close to your face and shut first one eye and then the other – your finger jumps, and the size of that jump is a reliable gauge of how far away it is. With both eyes open, the brain erases the jump, but keeps the information to tell it how distant things are.

The future technology that everyone is hoping for will most probably involve angled beams that deliver slightly different images to each eye. The drawback is that the viewer has either to sit in exactly the right place, or the television must identify faces, locate the eyes, and aim its beams at these precisely chosen points. The former is a non-starter; the latter is still years away from going on sale at an affordable price.

In Samsung's system, as with earlier 3D technologies, both images are displayed but light heading for the wrong eye is blocked – as it was, most famously, in the Seventies by the red and green filter cardboard spectacles given away in cinemas showing 3D films.

The Korean company's innovation is to have the television screen flicker between images for the left eye and right eye, at the same time that the lenses of their goggles flicker between opaque and transparent. To ensure that the viewer doesn't notice this, it has to be done very fast, 120 times a second – more than twice as fast as images appear on ordinary television screens and five times as fast as in movies. This only became possible with the latest generation of plasma screens.

Samsung's 3D TV system has three components: a 120Hz plasma screen; the PDP 470 – not cheap, but attractive on its own for anyone who wants the large-screen plasma experience; a computer, which most people have already; and a 3D kit consisting of goggles, software for the computer and a little infrared emitter that sits on the television and ensures that goggles and screen are synchronised.

"The kit will cost about as much as two new games," says Mr Zöller, picking just the right comparison to appeal to his target market. After games, content is expected to flow from films, television and websites.

Like any big electronics company, Samsung Electronics has numerous other technological tricks to promote, most of which will be standard fare in the industry within a year. The main selling point of the PDP 470 is that it makes moving images look sharper, particularly during the high-speed movements you get in live sports.

My own favourite innovation is a modest function that keeps the sound volume level when you're channel hopping. Others may prefer the limited interactive content, including built-in recipes and children's programming and even static displays of famous paintings by artists such as Matisse – though a poster from the National Gallery would be a lot cheaper.