The early adopter's guide to 3D

We did some experimenting to find the answers to some 3D mysteries.

Once you get.MPO images and .MTS 3D videos to play on your TV, you'll see subtle differences in the "3Dness" of the image, depending on the TV and camera that you use. We viewed sample .MPO images shot with different cameras on Panasonic's Viera TC-P42GT25 and Samsung's UN40C7000 using active-shutter glasses, and the differences were obvious.

For example, in our eyes-on tests, .MPO images shot with the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3 looked stunning when played back via a USB port on Panasonic's Viera TC-P42GT25: The images displayed "coming out of the TV" foreground effects, expansive background depth, and subtle, true-to-life layering between different points in each image. But 3D .MPO images shot with the Sony Cyber-shot WX5 looked much more "3D" when viewed on the Sony Bravia KDL-40HX800 3D TV than on the Viera TC-P42GT25. Still images in .MPO format shot with the JVC GS-TD1 had a nice 3D effect when played back natively on the Panasonic set, but the image looked very layered: Subjects at different focal lengths looked a bit flat, and more like cardboard cutouts than real, three-dimensional objects. What's more, the Samsung set didn't recognize .MPO and 3D .MTS files on a connected USB drive; we had to connect the capture devices to the set via HDMI to view the files.

Even when you connect a camera or camcorder to a 3D TV for playback over HDMI, differences in 3D quality are noticeable from set to set. After we connected the FinePix Real 3D W3 to a Panasonic TV, the same 3D video showed more depth and much less flickering than it did when played on the Samsung set. Differences in the sets' signal processing, in 3D glasses technology, and even in the amount of battery charge left in the active-shutter glasses can affect the 3D quality during playback.

3D Content Providers

The selection of 3D content available today is better than it was last summer--the last time we checked in--but not by much. 3D Blu-ray discs are still the easiest way to put your 3D TV to work--assuming that you have a 3D Blu-ray player or a Sony PlayStation 3. Unfortunately for consumers, we continue to see vendors lock down high-profile movies as key elements of exclusive bundle-only releases. The 3D Blu-ray version of Avatar, for example, is available only as part of a Panasonic 3D starter kit that includes two pairs of glasses for about $400.

Sports fans can check out ESPN 3D, which currently shows scheduled sports events in 3D (consult the ESPN 3D schedule) and aims to begin showing nonstop 3D video content on February 11. The channel is available on most large cable/satellite TV providers, including AT&T Uverse, Comcast, and DirecTV.

Elsewhere, the 3D TV offerings are underwhelming. Comcast's 3D Events channel, available in some areas, is reserved for broadcasting special 3D events, and DirecTV has a channel devoted to its paid 3D video-on-demand service. 3D TV owners hoping for more programming options may benefit from a joint venture between Sony, IMax, and the Discovery Channel called 3Net, which aims to launch in early 2011. Until it arrives, though, there's not much beyond ESPN 3D and whatever you can find on Blu-ray.

The State of the 3D Union

At this stage, making a major 3D hardware purchase looks safer for anyone who is interested primarily in shooting 3D still images and viewing them with minimal fuss on a 3D TV. The .MPO format is well on its way toward becoming the standard 3D still-image file type, and more and more 3D TVs will offer native support for .MPO files. If you want to buy a 3D-capable still camera right away, you can probably do so without incurring major buyer's remorse down the road, as long as the camera shoots .MPO-format 3D stills. The most impressive still-image output we've seen to date came from the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3.

Material from 3D Blu-ray discs or content providers' channels aside, video is much harder to play back if you don't directly connect the capture device to the TV. The presence of too many disparate file types and too little native video file support makes recommending one camcorder over another extremely dicey. If you're willing to connect your camera or camcorder to your 3D TV via HDMI each time you want to watch high-quality 3D video, it will work--but the process is cumbersome, and the "3Dness" of the images may vary.

Beyond shooting your own 3D photos and video, a handful of 3D Blu-ray discs are available for at-home viewing, and more broadcast 3D content is coming later this year. The launch of around-the-clock 3D content on ESPN 3D and of the 3Net channel should provide an interesting test of 3D's mainstream in-home appeal. If the content is good enough to support repeat, everyday 3D viewing, those big-name offerings may sway buyers to invest in a 3D set.

This story, "The early adopter's guide to 3D" was originally published by PCWorld.

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