Earlier this month, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and Xpand 3D announced they would form a new partnership to create a universal standard for 3-D TVs and other 3-D-capable devices like laptops.
The "Full HD 3D Glasses Initiative" aims to create joint licensing for existing Bluetooth and IR-controlled 3D shutter glasses so glasses can be compatible across a wide range of 3D displays.
The group hopes the first products using their so-called universal protocols will start to reach the market in 2012, but its "universe" does not include the passive technologies of LG and Vizio.
Universal is a myth
It is not possible to use active glasses with a passive 3-D TV, and vice versa. Universal applies only if one technology concedes to the other. Sound familiar? You may remember the format wars between Sony-backed Blu-ray and Toshiba HD DVD for high-definition movies and players, and between Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS videocassette tapes and players.
If you bet on the HD DVD format in 2006, you were left with an obsolete collection of movies once Blu-ray became the standard in 2008; likewise with Betamax. But the stakes for consumers are not quite so high this time around. 3-D movies are made in one format and can be played on either system.
The 3-D TV market is new and confusing, and it's growing. From now on, all HDTVs over 40 inches will be 3-D capable, according to industry analyst In-Stat.
Many people believe 3-D TVs are a different type of television altogether from the HDTVs in their living rooms. Not so -- 3-D is an added feature. Viewers can watch both regular and 3-D content on a 3-D-capable TV by switching between modes. And, some 3-D TVs can convert 2-D shows into 3-D, but only if the conversion mode has been selected.
Like "regular HDTVs," 3-D TVs are available with either plasma or LCD displays. To further complicate shopping, 3-D LCD HDTVs can come equipped with LED backlighting. Finally, you'll have to choose between active and passive 3-D systems.
A close race
Panasonic, Samsung and Sony offer active 3-D technology. LG and Vizio offer passive 3-D systems. Toshiba, the loser in the Blu-ray/HD DVD fight, has hedged its bet and offers both.
Passive 3-D is what you experience in movie theaters. Active systems were designed to compensate for smaller screens and not-so-dark environments found at home, according to Scott Birnbaum at Samsung.
Sales of active 3-D systems exceeded passive 3-D systems by 120,000 units in the second quarter of this year on total sales of 1.88 million units.
While there's no significant price difference between active and passive 3-D TVs, prices for compatible 3-D glasses are dramatically different.
Passive glasses can be found for $5 or less if you "forget" to return your pair at the local movie theater. Active shutter glasses are electronic devices themselves and include a battery and syncing technology that can drive the price up to $100 or more.
A look at BestBuy brings the difference home. An LG 47-inch LED 3-D HDTV with four pairs of passive glasses and a 3-D Blu-ray player is on sale for $1,000. A 46-inch LED 3-D HDTV from Samsung with two pairs of active shutter glasses and a Blu-ray player is sale priced at $1,250.
Passive vs. active
Both 3-D systems trick us into seeing in three dimensions by projecting slightly different images to our eyes to simulate depth.
Passive polarized 3-D glasses, like the kind found in movie theaters, are cheap and lightweight. Two different but overlapping images are sent to the glasses to create a 3-D effect. Passive glasses do not require batteries. Viewers don't have to remember to turn them on and off or synchronize them to the TV.
Active-shutter glasses are small LCD screens that alternately dim the left and right lenses in succession. They rely on an infrared emitter in the TV that signals when each lens is dimmed, so each eye can see the image intended for it. Proponents say this system provides a better 3-D image, others disagree.
But all agree that active-shutter glasses are heavier than passive glasses. Heavier glasses can prove uncomfortable over long viewing periods or when worn over prescription glasses.
It may be a trade-off: price and comfort for image quality. The best way is to try both systems at a local store. If you plan to host a crowd, passive is the more affordable alternative.
Of course, most people would agree that the best solution is no glasses, but that day is at least five years away. Toshiba is on the forefront of no-glasses 3-D technology and will launch the first 3-D laptop that does not require 3-D glasses of any kind later this month, the Qosmio F755. Price? More than some 55-inch 3-D TVs -- $1,700.
Ogden-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? Email Leslie Meredith at firstname.lastname@example.org.