What It Feels Like to Watch 3DTV: Viewing a Digital DioramaS

I've written a lot about 3DTV and that I consider it occasionally incredible. But the entire concept is tough to explain because, let's face it, I can't just embed 3DTV example videos and you've probably never seen it. Allow me:

I stood on a crowded CES floor with an assignment I dreaded. I had to look at every 3DTV I could find, an attraction that seemed to be drawing the slowest, most annoying attendees of all of CES into long lines to split a few pairs of glasses.

And these stupid screens are so unimpressive at first glance. To the naked eye, the screen is a tad blurry and maybe even a bit washed out. Then you slip on a pair of lightweight, heavily-douchey, thick-framed glasses. After a moment or two, the world around you goes darker, that once-blurry image sharpens instantly, and suddenly you're watching 3D.

The image you see will vary with content. You'll note a light flickering over your eyes, somewhere between the gaping black holes of an old time projector playing silent films and smooth 24 or 30fps video of a DVD or digital projector. But the biggest change is that your TV is no longer a flat pane but a window, an image in which there's an actual depth your eye can dig through, a digital diorama, if you will.

And if you happen to be looking around a room filled with 3DTVs, or maybe a display of 15 stacked 3DTVs, all of these TVs will have turned 3D. In mass, the effect is a giggle-filled novelty ever so reminiscent of Jaws 3D.

Animation is, by far, the most impressive demo you will see. Impossibly crisp and colorful, the effect is extremely lifelike...for a cartoon. More simply put, there's a perfect front to back gradient. Every object looks, well, like an object, like something round that takes up real physical space. When, during a clip of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's oily, porous nose protrudes from the screen ever so forcefully, you can't possibly imagine the moment done justice in 2D. The sense of flesh far outweighs what you see in the illustrative lead shot, because truthfully, these scenes have been designed and rendered with information that our displays have been incapable of showing us. With 3D animation, 3D is no gimmick—it's 2D that's the lousy undersell. And your eyes will be able to tell as they savor looking as deep as they can into the frame.

Sports are a vastly different, inferior experience. Basketball, for instance, is interesting in 3D but also indicative of the format's limitations. For one, the court has depth, but the players are quite flat, like a few paper cutouts are dribbling a ball back and forth instead of fully corporeal, 6'6" titans. Your mind can't quite reconcile the image, as it's somewhere between 2D and 3D, meaning it looks more fake, in a sense, than the simple 2D presentation we've always seen (the term "uncanny valley," though not quite suitable in this context, certainly comes to mind). I assume such is a result from the use of telephoto lenses, which are notorious for flattening even 2D images. The effect is even more pronounced in 3D, meaning that stereoscopic 3D shouldn't (and can't) be the end game for sports no matter what ESPN tells you. I could easily imagine a multicam arena setup which these blank (flattening) information spots could be filled, and an actual 3D image (a la Pixar) could be piped to consumers, rendered in real time. The effect in sports could truly be something we've never seen before (Madden 2010 crossed with real textures, essentially). As of now, it feels more like we're playing with paper dolls.

Live action film, specifically Avatar, is something I haven't seen on a 3DTV beyond a few 3D previews. The fast paced trailers—as opposed to the long, expansive shots of Pixar-style animation—don't lend themselves as well to the illusion (the 3D planes constantly break), and it's quite difficult to really assess or describe an effect that your eyes can't chew on for a while. On an IMAX 3D screen, I've mentioned that Avatar showed me textures I'd never seen before. On a plasma, Avatar looks far more like a cartoon, and its depth gradient is somewhere between the 2Dish sports and the all-out 3D animations (probably because Avatar itself is much a combination of the two). In the theater, I opened my eyes as wide as possible to take in the bioluminesence of Pandora. On the small screen, a light flicker distances you, almost unconsciously, from the content. But then again, Avatar never looked nearly as impressive in trailers as it did in final cut form, and 3D missiles firing straight at you will always be awesome.

But when things go really bad...

...watching 3D is nothing but pain. Before checking out an LCD or OLED, you put on the shutter glasses, as if all is well and good, and the lights again dim instantly. Each actual frame of the video are just as colorful, sharp and Y-axis-deep as those you've seen on better displays. But the frame rate seems to drop, with your favorite Pixar hero moving without smoothness or extreme subtlety. And of course there's a flicker on top of the odd frame rate, causing the already subpar image to strobe. The overall effect is akin to playing Crysis on an underpowered GPU along with some monitor that goes dark several times a second. It's sour stacked on sour, an experience with so little redeeming quality you should cease to even consider it.

That annoying CES line I described at the start of this piece? It was at the LG booth, right before I took a look at their 3D plasma prototype, which is slated to be released later this year for $200 over a 2D model. And right when I was ready to give up on glasses, gimmicks and eyestrain, the experience wiped my memory of it all as I stood there transfixed for at least 5 minutes, disregarding the line behind me and watching the same remarkable animated clips over and over. I thought of a new era of filmmakers speaking in an updated cinematic dialect, and I knew that words couldn't quite describe the sensations—we simply hadn't decoded them yet.

(Oh, and if you think all of this is too lovey on 3D, read all of my technological caveats here.)