At Consumer Electronics Show, 3-D TV will take center stage


Grab the popcorn and 3-D glasses and get ready for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the trade event that got its start as a gadget-fest but has emerged as an important showcase for new entertainment technology.

In years past, the show has been the glitzy platform from which manufacturers launched such products as high-definition television, the digital video recorder, the compact disc player and the camcorder. This year will be no different.

On display Thursday through Sunday will be four technology trends that promise to shape how people get their entertainment. This year manufacturers will seek to capitalize on Hollywood’s current mania for 3-D films -- and the recent box-office success of James Cameron’s fantasy adventure “Avatar” -- by unveiling televisions that bring 3-D into the living room. Another trend is TVs that connect to the Internet. And as more consumers expect to be entertained wherever they happen to be, TV broadcasters are hanging their hopes on a third technology at CES -- mobile digital TV.

Finally, manufacturers will show a gaggle of portable gadgets to deliver all manner of entertainment, including books, videos and music.

Still, on the show floor 3-D will occupy center stage.

The groundwork has already been laid for bringing three-dimensional images into the home. The Blu-ray Disc Assn., a group of consumer electronics, computer and entertainment companies, last month agreed on a single standard for recording and playing back 3-D movies on Blu-ray discs. Televisions capable of displaying the images are expected to be introduced at the show.

Hollywood executives welcome the development, contending that audiences are embracing the reincarnation of the 1950s technology -- delivered this time without the cheesy cardboard glasses.

“The consumer electronics companies are seeing that this is a great opportunity to create a higher-quality in-home viewing experience. The technology is here, and there’s a very big surge in content coming,” said DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, a self-appointed evangelist for 3-D.

“You can feel this amazing surge that has been picking up steam all year,” he said. “And with the arrival of ‘Avatar,’ it’s pushed it to a frenzy level.”

Many in the entertainment industry believe it could take years for 3-D television to catch on. After all, it’s taken more than a decade since the introduction of high-definition television in the late 1990s for the sets to reach a majority of American homes.

Even now, one-third of HDTV owners -- or about 14 million -- aren’t watching high-definition programming, according to a study done by media research firm Frank N. Magid Associates Inc. By that measure, it could take years for 3-D television sets to become cheap enough -- and for content to become plentiful enough -- for the technology to reach the mainstream.

“In my own mind, there are a lot of other innovations for the consumer to chug through way before 3-D,” said Mike Vorhaus, Magid’s managing director of new media.

Internet-connected televisions, another major trend on display at CES, may well be on a faster adoption path.

Last year a handful of companies debuted TVs that used Yahoo Inc.’s “widgets” to deliver an array of popular sites, including EBay, Flickr and Twitter, to the set. This year, nearly every TV manufacturer will have an Internet connection in its lineup, along with a slew of deals with Netflix, Facebook and Google.

Such connectivity is key to enabling entertainment to flow from the home computer or laptop to the TV.

Entertainment companies such as Walt Disney Co. are pushing technologies that would enable consumers to pay once for a movie or television show but watch it on multiple devices.

“Seemingly every device now is Internet-connected. I really see it as almost like the plasma that flows through the devices, from one to another,” said Bob Chapek, president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios. “Any device that’s not connected is at risk of becoming obsolete.”

A similar initiative, dubbed Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, seeks to create a single “digital locker” that holds the movies and videos purchased by a consumer and enables them to be played on multiple gadgets. As with the Disney concept, the idea is to give consumers more flexibility in how they watch content, whether it’s on a smart phone or a big-screen TV, said DECE President Mitch Singer.

Increasingly, people are turning to portable devices to watch movies, TV shows and short videos. To capture this segment, hundreds of broadcasters are pinning their hopes on mobile digital TV. The technology lets viewers watch from a laptop or a portable device such as a smart phone or portable DVD player.

“We need to follow our consumers,” said Brandon Burgess, CEO of Ion Media Networks Inc., which owns 59 broadcast TV stations. “There are only 160 million living rooms in the U.S. but hundreds of millions of devices. The trends are clear that mobile devices are where consumers will be getting video. We want to be there.”

Chances are, there will be even more mobile gadgets out when TV stations start rolling out their mobile DTV broadcasts this year. Dozens of manufacturers will be trotting out devices with screens measuring 5 to 8 inches -- smaller than a laptop but larger than a smart phone. One device, the LG Mobile Digital Television, features a 7-inch-wide screen and built-in DVD player. Others will emphasize the ability to read digital books, such as Plastic Logic’s wireless Que ProReader, which features a screen the size of a sheet of notebook paper.

Whether they will flourish remains to be seen. Aside from e-book readers such as Inc.’s Kindle, consumers have tended to shy away from devices with small screens.

“There’s a reason why we call that range a dead zone,” said Van Baker, a consumer electronics analyst with technology research firm Gartner. “Any product that comes out in that size either migrates up to accommodate a keyboard or shrinks down to something you can throw in your pocket. Anything in the middle doesn’t seem to work.”