SHIFT: Stop shopping for an HDTV! 3D is coming!

Do not buy an HDTV. Do not buy a Blu-ray player. Do not buy an AV receiver.

Why? 3D HDTV and Blu-ray is coming.

Big deal, you say? Yes, big deal, says I. Read on if you want to avoid a killer case of instant obsolescence and buyer's remorse.

Rule No. 1 when buying technology: Never say to yourself, "I really don't need X advanced feature" to rationalize saving a few bucks. Tech-buying penury always alwaysalwaysalways leads to not only regret that you didn't spend the extra Rubles on what you didn't think you needed at the time of the original purchase, but a follow-up purchase to make up for your initial cheapskate rationalization.

More on why a reminder of this rule is relevant in a moment.

It's Official: 3D HDTV Is Coming

At a series of small demos last week, one of which I attended, Panasonic officially/unofficially announced that it'll start to sell 3D plasma HDTVs and 3D Blu-ray decks sometime next year, probably about a year from now, I'd guess. 3D at home makes people snigger (well, mea culpa, it made me snigger eight months ago). But Panasonic's pseudo-announcement is no sniggering situation. Even though no other HDTV or Blu-ray manufacturer has announced support for Panasonic's 3D system, "They support it in private," according to Panasonic VP Bob Perry, a respected veteran of the consumer electronics business. "I'm not aware of any manufacturer or studio that says they don't support it."

The twisted Yogi Berra-like semantics of that statement notwithstanding, Sony, for instance, has announced its own 3D PlayStation 3 initiative, and the company shot and broadcast last January's FedEx Bowl Florida-Oklahoma BSC National Championship Game using Sony's 3ality Digital image-capture technology for an invited audience at Las Vegas' Paris Hotel's RealD-equipped Theatre des Arts.

Plus, Perry says there could be as many as 50 3D Blu-ray titles if 3D equipment were available today, and there'll be likely 100 3D Blu-ray titles at launch. As we know, Hollywood loves to sell us new versions of the same old explosion-filled crap.

There won't be any format war, either. Panasonic will be using an official 3D Blu-ray standard currently in process, and the new HDMI 1.4 specification, which specifies 3D as one of its improvements over the current 1.3a spec.

A new HDMI spec means, of course, you'll need a new HDMI 1.4-compatible AV receiver. With all these official tech organizations behind 3D, Panasonic is likely only the first to announce 3D product.


How's It Work?

Panasonic's 3D stereoscopic system is electronic, so chuck those cardboard red-and-green glasses or those plastic polarized glasses you got when you went to see Up. The first Panasonic 3D HDTVs will be plasmas, the only sets with a fast enough refresh rate to accurately render a 3D image.

The dual-scan/dual-driver plasmas display alternate 1080p frames every 60th of a second, one set of frames mimicking what your left eye sees, the other set mimicking what your right eye sees; current HDTVs are single-scan so can't display alternating stereoscopic 1080p frames.

New 3D HDTVs will be equipped with emitters that transmit 120Hz control signals to special battery-powered glasses that, using microscopic "shutters," essentially merge the alternating stereoscopic 1080p frames the way your brain processes the image received from each of your eyes to create a true-to-live 3D HDTV image.

James Cameron's Avatar is shot using a twin-lensed system that mimics the way your two eyes see. High-def 2D camcorders, due in 2011, also are likely to use a dual-lens system.

The glasses themselves look like oversized sunglasses and comfortably fit over regular glasses. They'll be powered by a battery that will supply enough juice for 250 hours of 3D viewing. The glasses, likely to be manufactured by a number of companies, automatically turn themselves off when they don't detect signal from the emitters.


How Much Will It Cost?

Perry admits the first gear will cost more than today's equipment, but he wouldn't be pinned down as to how much. But getting back to my Rule No. 1 about tech buying, you shouldn't use the extra dollars as an excuse to buy a cheap HDTV and Blu-ray player now and dismiss waiting for the more expensive 3D option a year from now, unless you plan to move what you buy now to a second room.

Why? Perry believes that in three to five years, half of all HDTVs will be 3D. Eschew 3D and buy now and you'll regret it; in a few years, those who waited will be inviting you over to watch 3D HDTV while you stare impotently at the cheap 2D HDTV you ignored my advice to buy today.


How's It Look?

And that's the other reason you'll regret not waiting — the 3D HDTV looks spectacular. No flicker, no layered panels, not holographic — just a pure, natural, seamless realistic 3D image with depth-of-field like you'd experience in the real world. It's kind of spooky, actually. I watched nine minutes of clips including scenes from Up, nature footage and lots of material from the Beijing Olympics. I can't image what the XXX folks will do with it. Well, maybe I can.

I predict that, just like you became an HDTV snob, swearing never to watch "regular" TV again, you'll quickly become a 3D HDTV snob.

Drawbacks? A couple. I didn't get any of the usual focusing headaches one often gets watching 3D, but then again I watched for only 9 minutes. You can watch 3D HDTV in a well-lit room, but it's most effective in a dark room. Perry says that 240Hz LCDs "may" work okay (but plasma always was the better technology, so this isn't exactly a problem). And my guess is you'll want at least a 65-inch HDTV to really blow your optical doors off.

Then there are the glasses. Wearing glasses to watch TV will definitely take some getting used to. Maybe, somehow, wearing glasses to watch TV may be deemed to be cool. But 3D HDTV is coming, like it or not. So, HDTV caveat emptor. You've been warned.