Ready or not, 3-D television is here. The first sets, from Samsung and Panasonic, are showing up in stores, and the trickle is about to turn into a flood as Sony, LG, Vizio and others join the fray in coming months. Even with 3-D's success in movie theaters — Avatar has raked in more than $1 billion — it will be a while before we know whether it turns out to be must-have technology in the home, or just the latest high-tech fad.
But on behalf of those with more curiosity than common sense — and we know who we are — I recently ventured over to B&H, the landmark electronics store on New York's Ninth Avenue. There, I tried to figure out, if not all the answers about 3-D, at least some of the right questions to ask when you hit the stores yourself.
My 3-D Sherpa was Kevin Landry, 41, a B&H sales associate who is so into this stuff he managed to score an early Samsung unit that he already has had in his home for months, viewing content he has found on the Internet.
Here are some of the questions he's bracing for as customers start to descend:
Do I have to wear the glasses?
Yes, whenever you watch 3-D content; images will be blurry and unwatchable without the specs. Not only that, you can only use glasses made for your particular brand of TV. The sets work by sending signals that control shutters in the glasses, and there isn't yet an industry standard for how they communicate with each other.
How big a screen do I want?
Even more so than with plain old two-dimensional high-definition TV, you don't want to sit too close. A decent rule of thumb is the screen's diagonal measurement should be about one-third the distance from which you'll view the set — say, a 50-inch screen if you'll be sitting about 12 feet away.
Do I need to be directly in front of the screen?
The optimal viewing angle seems to be no more than 50 degrees off dead center. Besides missing the stereoscopic effect if you're too far off to the side, you'll also run the risk that the set and glasses will lose the signal between them, much like a TV remote control won't work unless it's aligned with the receiver.
What kind of screen is best?
In Landry's opinion, plasma, which has been losing ground in the hi-def marketplace to lighter, less-expensive liquid-crystal displays, yields a better 3-D experience. He says that with LCD screens — including those that use light-emitting diodes, or LEDs — you should pay special attention to the refresh rate, the speed with which an image is redrawn. He recommends a rate of at least 240 hertz to keep the picture as sharp as possible, even when there's fast action on the screen.
What will I watch?
Make sure you like the set's picture for 2-D content, because for the near future there won't be much else to use your set for. ESPN plans to launch a 3-D sports service that will include coverage of the soccer World Cup, starting in June. Discovery Communications is working with Sony and Imax on a 3-D channel, too.
Satellite broadcaster DirecTV has announced it will carry ESPN and three other 3-D channels, and while other satellite and cable providers have said they will also add content, details so far are sparse. You'll almost certainly want one of the new generation of 3-D Blu-ray players; unlike the glasses, you won't have to buy the same brand of player as your TV.
How much will it cost?
Oh, lots. B&H is selling a 55-inch Samsung set with a starter kit that includes two pairs of glasses and a 3-D Blu-ray copy of DreamWorks Animation's Monsters vs. Aliens for $2,969. That's about double the cost of a comparable 2-D set. A Blu-ray player may be another $250 to $400. For extra glasses, figure $150 to $200 a pair. You may even need new HDMI cables to connect various components; 3-D requires cables labeled either 1.4 or 1.3 high-speed.
Will it make me sick?
Samsung has warned purchasers of potential side effects, including seizures or strokes, and pregnant women, children and teenagers should be especially careful. Some users may also experience headaches or nausea, though that may be as likely to come from the cost and complexity as from the technology or content.
The smartest thing you can do right now is to wait and see how the industry's enormous 3-D push plays out. The second- smartest thing: Make sure your store has a decent return policy.