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Games could save 3D TV

Carmi Levy at Betanews recently through cold water on excitement over new 3D TVs coming from major television manufacturers. Though I agree, I think software targeted at TVs could increase the value proposition enough to accelerate demand.

3D entertainment is all the rage now that James Cameron has proved that people will pay top dollar to see their movies in 3D. Of course, what made sense for a Cameron creation doesn't apply to everyone. What works for Avatar or Monsters vs. Aliens might not work as well for Ordinary People, a maudlin little Redford tale about people dealing with a death in the family. This has led to big-name manufacturers of flat-screen televisions (which is redundant, as you'd be hard pressed to find the tube variety anymore) to start releasing units capable of displaying 3D video. Just broke the bank paying for that flash big-screen HDTV? Well, come back up to the table, gentleman, its time to spend even MORE on your home theater experience.

Carmi Levy threw some cold water on the concept in a recent article on Betanews where he argued that the lack of content, the lack of distribution (only some 3D Blu-ray discs will exist, certainly no television signals for the foreseeable future), lack of affordability ($3000.00 for a TV, $250.00 for the glasses) and lack of relevance (like I said, serious real-life dramas don't translate well into 3D) make excitement about 3D TVs the equivalent of geek hyperventilation. I have to agree. I have no intention of running out and buying a 3D TV anytime soon. I'm sure a friend of mine who runs a business installing high-end theater systems for rich Hollywood types will find customers for them, but for me, money IS an object.

But, just to be contrarian, I do happen to see a realm where 3D TVs could become quite popular once the price comes down considerably (something which will take a lot longer, as I don't imagine 3D TVs will be flying off the shelves for the reasons Mr. Levy accurately identified). That realm is games.

The fact that people have to wear funny glasses to view content would roll off the back of a gamer accustomed to tiny controllers, bruised fingers, clunky headsets and other accoutrements of hardcore gaming. They are more likely to spend big money building a flash hardware setup to support their gaming habit, so 3D TVs wouldn't have to go down in price quite as much to tempt them across the line. Most games are EXACTLY the kind of content that would make good use of 3D. Games are more Avatar than Ordinary People, in other words.

In fact, a product coming this Fall to the XBOX would be a PERFECT fit for a 3D gaming future. Nintendo popularized the motion controller with the Wii, and Sony is essentially cloning that concept for the PS3. Microsoft has taken a different tack, opting to dispense with controllers altogether and map your motions so that they can be integrated into the gaming experience.

The technology is part of Project Natal (whose go-to-market product name isn't set in stone yet, as far as I know), and it would be a perfect fit for a 3D gaming experience. Imagine a boxing game where the opponent is essentially standing in front of you (in 3D). I love dark games like "Left 4 Dead", "Dead Rising," "Fallout 3" and "Gears of War." Those games would absolutely freaking rock in 3D. Whole generations of gamers will probably sit far closer to the TV than mom says you should, but that's a problem for their eye doctors. Natal seems uniquely suited to making the 3D experience more interesting from a gaming standpoint.

If Microsoft Project Natal team isn't currently doing research into a 3D gaming experience, then they have missed something rather fundamental about the usefulness of motion detection in games.

Another realm where I could see 3D being used would be in video communications. That only makes sense if the video conversation escapes your PC and moves to the largest display area in your home. Of course, for that, you'd need reasonable-cost 3D video cameras, and an even bigger problem would be the size of the video stream that would result. As Carmi Levy pointed out, the bandwidth requirements of a 3D video stream are such that cable vendors will be slow to offer 3D content.

Are my two examples enough to make 3D worthwhile? Maybe not, but the point, however, is software is what adds the real value. Software, I think, is what could make 3D TVs actually something people feel they NEED to have. By bringing in software engineers to add value to the largest viewing area in the home (and they are sure to do it in ways that I can't currently imagine), people will start to have more reasons to want a 3D TV than just what is available in terms entertainment media. That's why I still think that the company that figures out a way to make a true, TV-attached, general-purpose device that offers an easy way to add services that are developed by a large community of third-party developers will make boatloads of cash. It was what I had hoped Microsoft would do with IPTV.

Though I think Microsoft is ahead of the curve with Project Natal, I don't think they are doing enough with the XBOX. In spite of XNA, their platform for GAMES on the XBOX (now extended to the new Windows Phone Series 7), where is the opportunity for NON-GAME, truly network aware applications if you AREN'T Facebook, Netflix or Last.fm?

But, that's a grouse for another blog...