Sony chief executive Howard Stringer hit the nail on the head when, during his news conference before the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, he said, "This whole thing is turning into the CES 3-D show."
Indeed, Sony and its competitors — major electronics makers including LG, Toshiba, Samsung, Sharp and Panasonic — took turns during the pre-CES media day trying to outdo each other in the burgeoning market of 3-D television.
Stringer, for his part, promised Sony would have three-dimension-enabled televisions, providing the same sort of immersive high-definition depth found in movies such as the box-office blockbuster Avatar, in stores by the summer. He also confirmed that a downloadable software update for Sony’s PlayStation 3 later this year would enable the video game console to play 3-D Blu-ray movies.
Panasonic is barrelling full-throttle into 3-D with plans to launch enabled Viera televisions and Blu-ray players in the spring, as well as the first 3-D camcorder — which looks like the sort of coin-operated binoculars found at tourist attractions.
The company also announced a partnership to promote 3-D with U.S. satellite provider DirecTV, which itself unveiled plans to have two channels showing three-dimensional sports, music and other content by June.
Avatar producer Jon Landau joined Panasonic executives at the company’s CES press conference in touting the technology. "3-D is not about gags coming off the screen, it’s about creating an immersive experience," he said. "It heightens the experience, it becomes a voyeuristic experience."
'It's not just smoke and mirrors. It's real.'—Panasonic executive Yoshi Yamada
All of these companies agreed that the technology is ready for prime time. On the content side, movie studios are churning out 3-D movies while television producers are also joining in – ESPN and the Discovery Channel are just two that are already on board. On the technology side, all of the standardization has taken place, with the last piece of the puzzle — Blu-ray player specifications — agreed upon just last month. The runway for 3-D, therefore, is clear.
"It’s not just smoke and mirrors. It’s real," said Yoshi Yamada, North American chief executive for Panasonic.
What’s still not clear is what sort of a premium the televisions will be sold at. None of the manufacturers announced pricing for their sets, but Panasonic executives recently told CBC News that they expected there would be no extra cost.
Frank Lee, marketing manager for LG Canada, told CBCNews.ca that 3-D televisions will indeed be more expensive, to the tune of a few hundred dollars. LG is planning to launch 3-D sets in the spring.
"There’s going to be a premium to it, but I think it’ll be within a reasonable range," he said. "But with the extra cost, most consumers [from our research] will say this is a worthy investment from an entertainment standpoint."
High-def Skype on TV
While 3-D was on everyone’s lips the day before CES officially kicked off, it wasn’t the only television innovation happening. A number of manufacturers, including LG and Panasonic, announced high-definition Skype video calling for their internet-enabled televisions.
The feature will duplicate the popular free-calling service, currently found on computers and mobile phones, on the television screen.
Skype executives said 2010 will finally be the year that video calling takes off, as the technology has matured to the point where it can provide reliable high definition. They added that one-third of all Skype calls are already video calls.
Samsung, which announced a 3-D partnership with DreamWorks and Technicolor, also said it was making apps — the downloadable and customizable software made popular by Apple and its iPhone — available for its internet-enabled televisions.
Despite the flurry of television-related announcements, CES isn't just about TV this year. Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer capped off the media day with his second keynote since taking over for company founder Bill Gates. Ballmer showed off some prototype touchscreen tablet computers and revealed that Project Natal, the upcoming gesture-based control system for the Xbox 360 video game console, will be available before Christmas this year. He did not say how much the system would sell for.