Ralph Kramden can finally buy a television.
It was more than half a century ago, in a 1955 episode of The Honeymooners, that Kramden, the parsimonious bus driver played by Jackie Gleason, told his wife, Alice, that he had not bought a television because "I'm waiting for 3-D."
The wait will soon be over. A full-fledged 3-D television turf war is brewing in the United States as manufacturers unveil sets capable of 3-D and cable programmers rush to create new channels for them.
Many are skeptical that consumers will suddenly pull their LCD and plasma televisions off the wall. Beginning at around $2,000, the 3-D sets will, at first, cost more than even the current high-end flat screens, and buyers will need special glasses to watch.
But programmers and technology companies are betting consumers are almost ready to fall in love with television in the third dimension. In part, it could be the Avatar effect: With 3-D films gaining traction at the box office — James Cameron's Avatar surpassed the $1 billion mark last weekend — companies are determined to bring an equivalent experience to the living room.
"The stars are aligning to make 2010 the launch year of 3-D," said John Taylor, a vice president for LG Electronics USA. "It's still just in its infancy, but when there is a sufficient amount of content available — and lots of people are working on this — there will be a true tipping point for consumers."
At that point, the question becomes whether consumers, many of whom have only recently upgraded to costly new high-definition sets, will want to watch in three dimensions enough to pay for the privilege.
"I think 90 percent of the males in this country would be dying to watch the Super Bowl and be immersed in it," said Riddhi Patel, an analyst at the research firm iSuppli.
But will the experience translate to other entertainment?
"You don't necessarily want the ladies of The View sitting around you when you watch them," Patel said.
It took high-definition television about a decade to catch on. Analysts expect 3-D TV to go through the same curve, initially attracting first adopters for whom price is little or no object and gradually moving out to other affluent and then middle-class homes as sets become cheaper and programmers create enough 3-D fare.
3-D televisions, like the 3-D screens in theaters, work by dividing picture images into two sets, one for each eye. A viewer must wear special glasses so each eye captures a different image, creating the illusion of depth. Filming entails two connected cameras, one for the left-eye image and the other for the right.
Manufacturers have developed two technologies for 3-D glasses in the home. In polarized glasses, which can cost under a dollar, each lens blocks a set of images transmitted in certain types of light. "Active" glasses, which are better suited for LCD screens, have battery-powered shutters that open and close rapidly, so each eye sees different views of each frame. These can cost up to $100, but televisionmakers are expected to package at least two pairs with each monitor.
Technology that allows people to watch 3-D without glasses has severe limitations, like forcing viewers to sit at a certain distance.
Mike Vorhaus, managing director of new media for Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting firm, said 3-D was many years away from widespread adoption. For now, he said, it is "one more appetizer" for consumers who "already have a lot to digest."