For your viewing pleasure?

The soccer ball flies errantly through the air, over the heads of the players and into the stands, so close that you and the roaring crowds that surround you duck for cover. While the players’ breath paints the frosty air, you sit back in your armchair, take off your 3D glasses and look around your living room. This is the future of television, and the technology to make it possible is already here.

Coming quickly after the success of animated 3D film “Up” and director James Cameron’s record-breaking “Avatar,” 3D television became a popular story early this year at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with multiple television companies such as Sony, Panasonic and Samsung all debuting the new technology. ESPN is already planning on broadcasting 85 live sporting events in 3D in 2010, starting with the FIFA World Cup on June 11th, and Europe’s Sky Sports broadcasted the first ever live soccer match in 3D January 31st in pubs around England. Even the Grammy Awards got in on the act this year, with the Michael Jackson tribute song broadcast in 3D as viewers around the country put on 3D glasses that were handed out beforehand at Target.

The way 3D television works is by mimicking the way the human eye works as closely as possible.

“The left and right eye see slightly different views at slightly different distances, which both shift from left to right when looking around,” said Michael Bove, head of the Object-Based Media Group at the MIT Media Laboratory. “3D is shot with two cameras side-by-side, with the left camera broadcasting to the left eye,” and vice versa, via advanced shutter glasses, giving the impression of the third dimension.

Looking into the future

In filming this way, the double camera setup is essentially fooling the viewer into seeing more than is actually on the screen. In order to do this, the television must have a high “refresh rate,” which refers to the number of times that the TV can load the images in one second. A few current high definition televisions have the required level to display high quality 3D, but the wave of future 3D TVs will have higher refresh rates than almost every television on the market.

“Most 3D televisions that are being produced are LCD screens modified to run twice as fast,” said Bove.

But the obstacles facing 3D television may sink it before it even gets a chance to catch on. Early indications suggest that the cost of the new products may mirror that of high end LCD TVs now, yet the majority of the country has still not had time to adapt to the expensive $2,000 high definition screens, and those that already have won’t want to adapt again so soon with price tags that high.

The practicality costs of 3D television are also likely to deter some viewers. While the 3D glasses in a movie theater help transform blurry images into 3D wonder worlds, outside of the darkened theater hall it’s impractical and a bit obnoxious to have to don these glasses all the time.

“Shutter glasses are connected to the television electronically,” said Bove. “The left lens opens when the left camera is on, and the lenses and camera views blink alternately.”

This alone can seem maddening and headache-inducing: while using active glasses, merely looking away from the television reveals the technology’s shuttering effect. That doesn’t even take into account the reasonable percentage of the population &- between four and 10 percent &- that, for one reason or another, cannot see 3D images on a screen at all. This condition, known as stereo blindness, means that that demographic is stuck with either 2D high definition or a blurry and nauseating 3D option.

But 3D TV’s wouldn’t only affect the stereo blind. The strain on the eyes that three dimensions creates can produce feelings of nausea, headaches and fatigue after watching a 3D movie, so sitting in a living room watching nothing but 3D TV could lead to serious strain on the eye.

“It’s a basic physiological problem,” said Bove. “In the real world, the eyes are focused and converged, but in 3D, the eyes are focused on the screen but are perceiving depth, leading to virtual reality sickness. . . you probably wouldn’t want to watch for five or six straight hours.”

New Dimensions, New Adventures

These issues don’t necessarily signify an imminent demise for 3D television, however. Innovations in film, content and video game technology could help make it into one of the biggest transitions in television since the switch from black and white to color, said Panasonic Executive Vice President Robert Perry. The novelty of the home technology is such that the interest of the viewing public can’t help but be piqued, just as the advance to color was a fascinating novelty of the time.

“I remember people with color TV’s [sic] throwing parties for less blessed neighbors when there were special events on,” said Clay McShane, professor of U.S. urban and social history at Northeastern University, in an email. “My brothers sometimes went to pubs to watch important ball games. The transition to cable TV might be another recent comparison.”

If getting the neighbors together around the TV to check out the new technology is what Panasonic, Sony and Samsung are all hoping will happen, the anywhere from a projected $50 to $100 it would cost for each pair of active glasses will no doubt make that a bit more of an exclusive gathering. This could effectively kill, or at least severely damage, the atmosphere surrounding typically large social events such as the Super Bowl, as people fight over expensive glasses and viewing angles rather than chicken wings and football.

But as these televisions seep out into the market and slowly shift from a novel piece of furniture toward a more normal viewing experience, 3D television may become as commonly accepted as high definition has become over the past decade. With this growth into the third dimension, there is always someone looking toward the future.

“Right now, we are working on holographic television,” said Bove. “But you won’t hear about that for another five or 10 years.”

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