Time to tee up 3D?

Summary:Now that 3D hardware is here, the content will follow, starting with The Masters this week. But is it compelling enough to convince consumers to upgrade?

Now that 3D hardware is here, the content is starting to follow. But is it compelling enough to convince consumers to upgrade?

There are two ways to view 3D content, not counting your local cinema. The first is with a computer equipped with the right hardware and software. For the past several weeks, I've been testing Nvidia's 3D Vision technology using a desktop PC and one of the new full HD monitors with the required 120Hz refresh rate. The other way to get 3D--and the way most people will--is with one of the 3D TVs from Panasonic, Samsung or Sony. (I've had a chance to try out a Samsung 46-inch 3D LCD TV with a 3D Blu-ray player, but that's for a separate post.)

The box office success of Avatar and Monsters vs Aliens has kindled interest in 3D, but to date there hasn't been a whole lot to watch at home. That's finally changing. Sports is regarded as one of the "killer apps" for 3D TV and this week parts of The Masters golf tournament will be broadcast in 3D. This isn't first 3D sports broadcast--Cablevision staked claim to that with a March 24 broadcast of the Rangers vs. Islanders game--but it is the first that will be widely available. Cablevision, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner will all be showing some golf in 3D. In addition, IBM is streaming several hours of 3D coverage each afternoon from The Masters Web site.

Yesterday afternoon I watched the Par 3 Contest on my desktop with 3D Vision. I've also been testing it with several popular games, as well as videos and 3D photo collections. The results have been mixed, but overall the technology is very promising.

First, a quick rundown on my hardware. Technically 3D Vision will work with any PC equipped with GeForce 8 series or later graphics, but for more intensive games you'll want at least the GeForce GTX 260. My test system is a Dell Alienware Area-51 desktop with a 2.66GHz Intel Core i7 920, 6GB of system memory, Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 graphics with 1.8GB of graphics memory and a 640GB hard drive. There are currently two monitors that support 1920x1080 video at 120Hz, the Alienware Alienware OptX AW2310 and the Acer HD235HZS. I tested with both 23.6-inch models, and they both worked fine. Finally, you need Nvidia's 3D Vision Kit, which includes the battery-powered glasses and wireless transmitter. All told this setup came in around $2,700, though if you already have a gaming PC, you can probably find a "3D-ready" 120Hz monitor for less and the kit itself is only $200. In addition, many Mitsubishi DLP TVs and some projectors from Acer, LightSpeed and Viewsonic will do the job (here's the complete list of 3D Vision-compatible hardware). The other option is the Asus G51J, a 15.6-inch laptop with 3D Vision that you can find for less than $1,600.

The 3D Vision setup still has a few kinks. Although the desktop and Alienware monitor both came from Dell, the installed software was out of date and did not include the drivers for the display. I had to download and install the drivers and 3D Vision software separately in order to get things working. (The setup is simpler with the Asus laptop or 3D TV since the wireless transmitter is integrated, and in the case of the Samsung LCD TV, you simply attach the player via HDMI and insert a 3D Blu-ray disc, and it works.) Also, while watching The Masters stream, Nvidia's 3D Vision Video Player would crash every 15 minutes or so, requiring a restart.

Despite these glitches, watching The Masters in 3D is intriguing. The 3D is at its best, not surprisingly, on shots with lots of depth such as the more dramatic holes on the Par 3 course with elevated tee boxes falling away over water to a distant green. But often it can also look artificial and gimmicky, particularly with the gallery in the foreground, which sometimes appears to be standing in front of the monitor, rather than in Augusta. The bigger issue is that images looked soft and slightly out of focus. Compared to the standard 2D stream of contest, the 3D version lacked much of the detail in the faces, clothing and grass, and on some shots it was even hard to make out the ball or the cup. It's not clear whether this is directly related to 3D Vision, or (more likely) has more to do with other aspects of the way the footage is shot (it uses different cameras and angles) and streamed online, but it does take away from the experience, especially if you're used to watching sports in crisp HD. Despite this, the Masters coverage is certainly good enough to show the promise of sports in 3D.

I've seen lots of other video footage in 3D, and how well it works really depends on the content and how far the producers try to push things on the scale from Avatar (relatively subtle) to Clash of the Titans (completely over-the-top). When it comes to still images, the technology has a ways to go. The effect is interesting, but none of the photo collections I've seen look very realistic. You can also shoot your own 3D stills and video with Fuji's FinePix Real 3D W1 (Sony is developing a 3D camera as well).

Games lend themselves more easily to the 3D treatment since by nature they already contain a lot of information about depth. This is why more than 400 titles already work to varying degrees with 3D Vision, according to Nvidia. I've been testing it with three titles: Batman: Arkhan Asylum; Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2; and Resident Evil 5. I'm not a big gamer, but it's clear to see why this immersive experience will have strong appeal, especially as games are further optimized specifically for the 3D environment. I've had numerous colleagues--both gamers and non-gamers--try these games in 3D and everyone likes it. PC gaming is a relatively small market, but as the hardware becomes more prevalent and less costly, gaming in stereoscopic 3D should catch on.

The big market, of course, will be TV, and The Masters is just a teaser. ESPN will launch the first dedicated 3D channel in June with the kick-off of the World Cup in South Africa. Earlier today FIFA and Sony announced the lineup for World Cup games in 3D--one match per day for a total of 25 days. In all ESPN 3D will broadcast 85 live events in its first year including college football and basketball, NBA games and the X Games. DirecTV recently announced it will carry ESPN 3D along with three other 3D channels. The satellite provider also plans to air Major League Baseball's All-Star game in 3D with Fox. And Sony, Discovery and Imax have formed a joint venture to launch a 3D channel in 2011. Some of these channels will operate only when covering live events, but others will broadcast 24 hours a day. While only a handful of movies are available in Blu-ray 3D (hopefully you really like Monsters vs Aliens), that should change by the holiday season.

The 3D technology isn't perfect yet. It is a natural fit for gamers, but it will take some time to figure out how it works best with TV and movies. Still, as more of this content becomes available, 3D should start to find a home in the living room.

Topics: Hardware

About

John Morris is a former executive editor at CNET Networks and senior editor at PC Magazine. He now works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are... Full Bio

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