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Tech Lab

Time to take a look

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / December 8, 2011
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This year, 3D televisions are cheaper than ever, yet Americans just aren’t biting. What is wrong with this picture?

Nothing, really. The new 3D sets are more attractively priced than they were. And they deliver the goods. I’ve been watching last summer’s superhero blockbuster “Captain America: The First Avenger’’ on a new 46-inch Sony LCD set. The movie is modestly enjoyable, and the 3D effect is reasonably impressive.

But 3D is also irrelevant to the movie’s limited charm, and would be for everything else on video. Would “30 Rock’’ be funnier in 3D? Would “Bridezillas’’ be dumber?

This might explain why 3D sets accounted for a smaller portion of orders from US retailers in the third quarter of 2011 than earlier in the year, according to research from the NPD Group’s DisplaySearch. “I think that at the moment, US consumers are looking for value,’’ said Paul Gray, director of TV electronics research for DisplaySearch. “Essentially, what they want is big and cheap. They’re not necessarily looking for the features and fripperies.’’

Well, it depends on the fripperies. The Sony I tested had one of my favorite innovations: LED backlighting. Older sets, like the three-year-old Samsung at my house, use bulky fluorescent tubes for backlights. LEDs use much less power and are far smaller. The result is a TV that’s less than two inches thick.

The set carried a list price of $1,500, about $300 more than a similar model without 3D. Then again, who pays list? I found the same 3D set online for as low as $1,100. Still, that’s hundreds more than you’d pay for a 2D set of the same size. And you’ve still got to pay for the 3D glasses, which have also come down in price. They ran around $100 a year ago, but I found them online for about $60.

But that’s $60 for each viewer. You’re paying for “active’’ 3D glasses, with built-in electronics that generate the dimensional effect. And you’ve got to buy the right brand of glasses. A Sony 3D set won’t work with Samsung 3D glasses. Some companies sell sets that work with cheap “passive’’ 3D glasses, like those used in movie theaters, but these glasses won’t work with the Sony set either.

Glasses-free 3D is available on a small scale, such as the 3DS Q handheld video game player by Nintendo Co. But doing 3D without glasses on a big screen is far harder. Japan’s Toshiba Corp. is about to introduce a 55-inch no-glasses 3D set in Germany, priced at $11,400.

The Sony glasses were reasonably comfortable, even on top of the pair I already wear, but you never forget you’ve got them on. Their presence added one more layer of unreality to a movie that already had plenty.

I and my colleague, Boston Globe TV editor Michael Brodeur, pulled on our 3D glasses, punched up “Captain America,’’ and settled in for the show. I thought the 3D effect worked well in scenes with vast open spaces. It conveyed a fairly plausible sense of depth and distance.

But close-in shots of actors talking to one another resembled cardboard cutouts laid on top of one another. “It wasn’t convincing 3D,’’ Brodeur said. “It felt like flatness with depth.’’

Exactly. And since the scenes with human beings in them are the ones that really matter, I found the 3D effect annoying.

It was less so when playing 3D-compatible video games. Bouts with Microsoft Corp.’s updated Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Sony Corp.’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception were enjoyable enough. Since everything in a game is computer-generated, the unrealistic 3D sensation wasn’t disturbing as it can be in live-action cinema. But neither did it make the games any more enjoyable. It was a gimmick, nothing more.

Still, in the long run, 3D TVs will probably dominate the market, as their price keeps dropping. Even I would buy a 3D set at the same price as 2D. But I probably wouldn’t buy the 3D glasses because I’d hardly ever need them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Michael Warshaw of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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