Posts Tagged ‘HDMI’

3D over broadcast digital TV: Can it be done right now?

I’ve been asked more than a few times this year if it is at all possible to transmit 3D over digital terrestrial television broadcasting (DTTB), or what we know simply as “free digital TV.” There seems to be a perception that one must have a Pay TV subscription service (cable, DBS, FiOS, or U-Verse) to access 3D programming.

Believe it or not, carrying 3D over terrestrial broadcast stations is mostly a business decision. Yes, major TV networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC could start broadcasting programs in 3D right now. And your 3D-enabled TV would be able to process the 3D signals correctly so the programs can be watched with active-shutter glasses. (I’m not going to discuss color anaglyph 3D here, which works over any TC channel, but produces the lowest quality of 3D.)

The ‘catch’ is that the 3D content would have to be delivered in a frame-compatible format, such as 720p/60 top + bottom (like ESPN uses), or 1080i/30 side-by-side (like DirecTV uses). Both of these formats were specifically developed to fit in a standard 6 MHz channel space, using a maximum bit rate of about 19.39 Mb/s. And in fact, broadcasts of 3D content from earlier this year were delivered in the MPEG2 format that is standard for over-the-air digital TV.

The top + bottom format used for 720p/60 frame-compatible broadcasts.

The fact that cable companies and satellite broadcasters are now moving to MPEG4 encoding for 3D carriage shouldn’t be discouraging. MPEG4 (more specifically, H.264 AVC) provides for 50% compression efficiency over MPEG2. But broadcasters can still pipe a pretty good 3D signal into your home using MPEG2, which has also gotten a lot more efficient in the nearly 20 years it’s been around.

Remember that both of the frame-compatible 3D formats sacrifice some image resolution to fit within a standard channel width/bit rate constraint, no matter what service you get 3D from. For top+bottom, your TV receives a combination frame with two 1280×360 images, anamorphically squeezed in the vertical plane. For side-by-side, each frame of video provides a pair of 960×1080 images, anamorphically squeezed in the horizontal plane.

Your 3D TV separates the two frames and reverses the anamorphic squeeze with a stretching process, resulting in full left eye/right eye frames – albeit with somewhat lower resolution. But today’s TVs do a pretty good job of interpolating pixels to correct for de-interlacing and judder, so these half-resolution images don’t look nearly as bad as you might think.

The side-by-side 1080i/30 format used for 1080i/30 broadcasts.

So, what’s holding broadcasters back? For one thing, available bits! DTTB is limited to a maximum bit rate of 19.39 Mb/s, and that leaves just enough room for one full HD channel (15 Mb/s maximum bit rate) and perhaps a standard-definition channel (3 MB/s maximum bit rate) to go along with it. So a broadcaster would have to devote the entire HD bit rate to the 3D program. Jamming a second 720p/60 or 1080i/30 3D program alongside the standard 2D broadcast would not be practical, as image quality on both channels would suffer.

Another possibility would be to transmit a 2D signal (left eye) and carry the right eye signal as a separate program. This would be a similar approach to analog FM stereo broadcasts, where the stereo information is transmitted as a subcarrier, or analog color TV, where the color burst is also carried as a subcarrier.

This technique can be accomplished digitally by transmitting a full-bandwidth 2D signal (left eye) and carrying additional metadata (2D + depth information) required to create the stereoscopic effect. That metadata would add something to the payload, and would rely on the some of the image processing inside the TV.

Now, a broadcaster could carry the Super Bowl in full HD as before (720p or 1080i), yet still enable 3D viewing for TVs equipped to handle the 3D signal. But there’s another ‘catch:’ Your TV would have to recognize the metadata ‘package’ and be able to open it up, rebuild the right eye frames, and sequence them accordingly.

Because it’s not likely that a DTTB station would use its entire bandwidth to carry a 3D broadcast of a big event, the 2D + depth format would make the most sense, just as older black and white TVs could still display a color TV program simply by ignoring the chrominance signals. I don’t know of any consumer TVs that are equipped to handle the 2D + depth format, so some sort of outboard adapter would be required to make this work.

The good news is that such a 3D converter box would not have to be expensive. It would incorporate an ATSC tuner (maybe even a pair of tuners!) and would be equipped to process the DTTB 3D signal into top + bottom or side-by-side formats, using a standard HDMI output connection to the TV. Frankly, such a box ought not to cost much more than $100, and could also be sold as a bundle with one or two pairs of universal active shutter glasses. (Motorola showed a prototype 3D converter box at NAB 2010 for older, non-3D TVs.)

What programs would work in 3D? Aside from football, which I do not believe benefits much from 3D based on my recent experiences, I’d say basketball, hockey, auto racing, Olympics individual events, golf, and tennis. Basically any sports event where the camera can get close enough to realistically create a sense of depth.

Who would be likely to try 3D broadcasts? My guess would be ABC and Fox for starters, given how much sports programming these networks already carry and how many stations they own. ABC, of course, is part of Disney, who also owns ESPN. ABC has the NBA, college football, and the Indianapolis 500, while Fox operates an extensive sports division and covers college and pro football, auto racing, and major league baseball.

NBC might also dip their toes in the water with Olympics coverage, Notre Dame football, NASCAR, horse racing, and Sunday Night Football. I’d see CBS as the last network to try this out, simply because they adhere to a strict ‘no multicast’ policy at all of their owned-and-operated (O&O) CBS and CW stations.

So the answer to the question is “Yes, free TV stations can broadcast 3D programming, and they can broadcast it now.” The catch is, do they want to, and which delivery format would they adopt to make it work?

Product Review: Samsung UN46C7000 3D LCD TV

If you attended CES back in January, you couldn’t escape 3D. It was everywhere in every booth, staring down from plasma and LCD TVs, projected from hanging screens, and dazzling on super-thin OLED monitors.

There is no question that TV manufacturers put some heavy bets on 2010 being the year of 3D. And most of the heavy betting came from Samsung, who originally announced 19 different models of LCD and plasma 3D sets at their press conference.

As things played out, public reception to 3D TV has been mixed. Numerous surveys have been taken that show consumers think 3D is certainly cool, but not many of them plan to buy a 3D TV this year. Is it too early in the technology curve? Is the lingering recession keeping wallets shut? It’s hard to say, but the fact is that 3D is coming along slowly – perhaps more slowly than manufacturers would like.

No, those cute lil' monsters do NOT come with the TV.

Samsung’s UN-46C7000 ($2,599 list) is one of the smallest 3D TVs available. For this review, I purchased Samsung’s BD-C6900 3D Blu-ray player for $249 at Amazon.com, as it was difficult to procure a press sample. (You can now buy this player for $214 at several different online stores.) Of course, right after it shipped, Samsung’s PR agency sent me the new BD-C6800 player. Figures!

OUT OF THE BOX

The UN46C7000 is ready to rock and roll. You’ll spend a few minutes assembling the support stand and trying to figure out how to attach it to the back of the incredibly-thin TV (something Samsung’s lab folks have had to deal with, too).  The finish around the bezel and on the stand is a shiny silvery color, which I find a bit distracting. But it goes to the old saying that “televisions are furniture,” I guess.

Samsung has provided plenty of input connections on this TV. There are four HDMI inputs, all of them version 1.4a compatible. Input #1 also supports connections to a personal computer, while Input #2 is the audio return channel (ARC) connection for an external AV receiver.

Believe it or not, THOSE are the analog video connections, along with the antenna input (far left).

There’s also a single analog component video (YPbPr) connection, a sign of the times. How much longer before this connection goes away altogether?  Of course, composite video connections just WON’T go away, and there’s one of those, too. Note that all of these analog connections do not use conventional RCA jacks – there’s no room for ‘em.

Instead, Samsung provides special breakout cables for component and composite video, along with analog video hookups. The actual plugs are stereo mini types. The same space/size problem applies to the Antenna input – Samsung provides an adapter to go from the standard threaded F-connector to a mini slide-on coaxial connector.

All of the HDMI connections support CEC, so when you turn on your Blu-ray player, the TV also powers up and switches to that input automatically. Want to feed digital audio from TV programs to your AV receiver? Samsung’s gotcha covered with a Toslink output jack, but you’ll need to come up with the cable. And as I just mentioned, HDMI input #2 will provide an audio return path to your receiver.

Four HDMI inputs are arrayed vertically along the left side of the rear panel.

MENUS AND ADJUSTMENTS

Samsung’s menus haven’t changed much over the years.  There are four image presets, labeled Dynamic, Standard, Natural, and Movie. Suffice it to say that you won’t want to run the TV for very long in Dynamic mode, as the pictures are extremely bright and over-enhanced. Standard, Natural, and Movie modes all work well for everyday viewing, but if you are into calibration, you’ll need to use Movie mode.

In addition to the Big 5 adjustments, you can also select from four different color temperature settings, five different aspect ratio settings, and a host of ‘green’ energy setting modes called Eco Solution. There are five different settings for screen brightness – including one that turns the image off, but leaves the sound on – and there’s also an ‘Eco Sensor’ that adjusts picture brightness based on ambient room lighting conditions.

If you think all of these settings play havoc with gamma, you are correct! And there are other image ‘enhancements’ that Samsung has included that will also result in some strange gamma curves, including three different black levels, three settings for dynamic contrast, and a shadow detail enhance/reduce adjustment. My advice is to leave them all off.

Samsung's backlit remote controls have gotten pretty snazzy in recent years.

Thanks to former home theater magazine editor Mike Wood, who know runs Samsung’s test lab in Los Angeles, we’re seeing more calibrator-friendly adjustments in the image menu. There are two Expert Patterns (grayscale and color) for basic brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue calibrations. You can also select red, green, and blue-only modes, as well as Auto, Native, and Custom color spaces. The Custom mode lets you define your own x,y coordinates for primaries.

For color temperature calibration, Samsung provides two-point and ten-point RGB gain and offset adjustments. The theory is to do most of the calibration in two-point mode, then go back through a multi-step grayscale in ten-point mode for fine-tuning. (It almost worked for me, with one hiccup.)

Other adjustments include Flesh Tone enhance (leave it off), xvYCC mode (leave it off as well, no one currently supports extended color in packaged content), and the usual edge enhancement (peaking) stuff. (Remember, HDTV doesn’t need edge enhancement – it’s high-definition, savvy?)

There are a couple of noise filters that have some effect on image quality. The MPEG noise filter attempts to use low-pass filtering to get rid of mosquito noise and macroblock (excessive compression) artifacts. Be warned that low-pass filtering softens high-frequency image detail, so go easy on these controls. There’s only so much you can do to turn chicken turds into chicken salad, as my old college film professor used to say.

We’ll wrap things up with a discussion of Auto Motion Plus. This feature, which is pretty much de rigueur on all new LCD TVs, corrects for 24-frame judder by pulling the frame rate up to multiples of 60 Hz. In the case of the UN46C7000, the corrected frame rate is supposedly 240 Hz. What this actually does to images is to make filmed content look like it is live, or shot at video rates.

Whether this is esthetically a good thing to do is a matter of debate. The result is a very smooth presentation, free of flicker and judder, but it just doesn’t look the same as a movie. The motivation behind Auto Motion Plus (and every other TV manufacturers implementation of it) is to get rid of motion blur and smearing, something that all LCD TVs suffer from to various degrees. Try it – you may like it, you may hate it.

3D MENUS

Thought I’d forgotten about these, eh? Samsung 3D TVs are quite smart enough to recognize when 3D content is streaming through their inputs, unless it is encoded in the HDMI v1.4a frame packing format. This format, which delivers movies in the 1920x1080p @24 Hz format, is so unique that if you start playing a 3D Blu-ray disc, the UN46C7000 will automatically switch into 3D mode – no further adjustments required.

The two frame-compatible 3D formats (1080i side-by-side and 720p top+bottom) require some help from you to be shown correctly. Once you’ve established that you are indeed seeing the unprocessed 720p or 1080i 3D program from your content provider, go into the UN46C7000’s 3D menu and turn 3D mode ON.

Your will then be presented with a menu of 3D frame compatible formats to choose from, including side by side (1080i), top & bottom (720p), and several esoteric formats like line by line, vertical stripe, checkerboard (also known as quincunx), and frequency. That last format alternates full-frame left and right images in a similar manner to active shutter 3D, but at slower frame rates.

Aside from frame packing and side-by-side/top & bottom, you are most likely to run into the checkerboard format when playing back 3D games and other non-standard media. The other formats are not widely used, but you may come across them with Internet-delivered or broadcast content in the future.

Samsung also has a 2D to 3D conversion algorithm built-in to all of their 3D TVs. Try it – the effect is noticeable at times, but still doesn’t look quite right to me. My advice is not to try and add synthetic 3D effects to everyday TV shows and movies, but stick with content that has been specifically formatted for 3D. (Readers who saw Clash of the Titans in 3D know what I’m talking about.

ON THE TEST BENCH

Given all of the image enhancement adjustments present in this TV – and the auto-dimming circuitry that boosts black levels – it is difficult to get an accurate read on gamma performance and contrast. Nevertheless, I did run a basic set of test patterns and came up with some mostly-believable numbers, using 1920x1080p test patterns from an AccuPel HDG4000 generator and ColorFacts 7.5 calibration software.

After my best calibration, I measured brightness in Movie mode at 110 nits  (32 foot-Lamberts). That number ranged as high as 400 nits in Dynamic mode (tanning lamp mode), 201 nits in Standard mode, and 210 nits in Natural mode. ANSI (average) contrast was clocked at a respectable 621:1, with peak contrast from  checkerboard pattern at 722:1.

Because of the auto dimming feature with low-level content, peak contrast can reach amazingly high levels. In Movie mode, a sequential white/black measurement reached 20,567:1, and soared to 400,000:1 in Dynamic mode. (Not that your eye can actually see that level of contrast.)

It's kinda wobbly-looking, but this 2.44 gamma was the best I could pull from the TV.

White balance uniformity was respectable for an LCD TV. Maximum color temperature shift across a full white screen was 388 degrees Kelvin, while maximum color shift across a nine-step grayscale was 287 degrees Kelvin. During one of my ten-point calibrations, the gray pattern at 30 IRE shifted noticeably blue-green, resulting in a bump up to 7260K. I’m not sure why it happened – going back and recalibrating in two-point mode fixed the problem.

That's a pretty impressive grayscale track!

And here's the reason why - look at the RGB levels, which vary little from black to 100 IRE.

I mentioned the screwy gamma curve performance earlier. You’ll tear your hair out trying to get a consistent gamma on the UN46C7000, so you’ll just have to settle for your ‘best shot.’ That’s what I did with an effective but wobbly 2.44 gamma in what I called my ‘best’ calibration out of ten. Not satisfied, I came back and tried it again with a ‘final’ calibration and didn’t see a significant difference.

But both curves were a lot cleaner than what I started with, which was S-curve gamma response in almost every picture mode. The culprit? That doggone auto-dimming circuit that forces deep blacks when the on-screen content has low luminance levels. Needless to say, you don’t want to be using a TV like this as a reference-grade monitor.

The UN46C7000 has a surprisingly accurate color gamut when compared to the BT.709 standard color space for HDTV. It just comes up a bit short on red and is oversaturated with green and blue. You can fix this to some extent using the Custom color space control, but red, yellow, and green are then undersaturated as a result. Can win ‘em all…

 

Here's the UN46C7000's factory color gamut...

...and here's the corrected color gamut, albeit light on green, yellow, and red.

IMAGE QUALITY

Because this TV is primarily marketed for 3D use, I decided to make most of my image quality judgments based on 3D content.  Of course, that didn’t leave me a lot of options for programming as I could only choose from 3D sports on ESPN, or the sole 3D Blu-ray disc in my possession – Monsters Vs. Aliens.

My thoughts on 3D football have already been published and can be found here. As for image quality, I found myself switching to Natural or Standard mode to pick up the additional brightness I was losing through Samsung’s active shutter glasses – about 50%, according to the basic physics of light. Movie mode was not bright enough for viewing 3D unless I had all ambient room lighting dimmed and there was little or no outside light.

Of course, switching out of Movie mode when watching a 3D movie tosses all of your calibration efforts out the window. How’s that for a conundrum? Your best image quality isn’t bright enough for watching 3D movies. (I knew there was a catch to this 3D thing…)

Switching in and out of Auto Motion mode fixed up quite a few motion blur problems observed in ESPN’s 3D telecast of the Ohio State – Miami football game, which I also elected to watch in Standard mode so I could throw away 100 of those 200 nits, yet still have acceptable screen brightness. I didn’t have a chance to use it to watch conventional movies.

This is the 21st-century version of the old Indian chief test pattern.

The 3D experience using frame compatible formats isn’t quite the same as watching frame-packed 3D from a Blu-ray. The latter format has more detail, more contrast punch, and  is just a lot more satisfying to watch. Because the two frame-compatible formats are half-resolution, image detail on long and medium shots didn’t quite measure up to ‘straight’ HD as seen from ESPN’s 2D telecast of the same game on my adjacent Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma.

Monsters in 3D was a very enjoyable experience. I did observe a slight amount of crosstalk through Samsung’s glasses, mostly when bright or near-white objects were present in the frame, such as Dr. Cockroach’s white lab coat, or white text on signs. Auto Motion was disabled and I didn’t see much in the way of objectionable judder, although animated movies tend to be ‘cleaner’ in this regard than live action films.

In general, it’s tough to make critical observations about 3D image quality because the images are so much dimmer. And it is discouraging that the best calibrated mode was too dark for my liking, resulting in dull colors and lower contrast. But given the screwy gamma response I saw in all modes, maybe I should have just sat back and enjoyed whatever appeared on the screen.

2D was a different story. In Movie mode, images had saturated, accurate color, plenty of contrast pop, and more than enough brightness for everyday viewing. Once ambient room light levels get to a certain point, you don’t really see any elevated black level issues. But you will see a flattening of contrast and a drop in brightness as you move off the center axis, something all LCD TVs have to contend with.

CONCLUSION

Samsung’s UN46C7000 is representative of current 3D LCD TV technology, using edge LED backlighting, auto dimming, and a super-thin design.

In terms of 2D performance, it is a strong performer despite those issues relating to gamma performance. In fact, it’s one of the best ultra-thin LCD sets I’ve examined in recent years, even though the patterned vertical alignment (PVA) liquid crystal layer still has some problems with color shifts when viewed off-axis.But it is bright, the colors pop, and images are detailed and crisp, especially after you go through and disable all of the so-called enhancements. And as you can see from the charts, once you calibrate it, it stays tight when tracking a specific color temperature.

As a 3D set, it does a workmanlike job, but could use more help with critical adjustments at higher brightness levels. You can’t calibrate anything in any mode other than Movie, so your only option is to crank up the brightness and try to recapture some of the light lost in Samsung’s active shutter glasses. That may screw up the TV’s gamma response, through.

SAMSUNG BD-C6900/BD-C6800: Samsung’s 3D Blu-ray players are very easy to set up. Plug them in, power up, and the CEC sensor will automatically turn on the TV and switch to that input. Both players are WiFi enabled, and will prompt you for a connection to your home network using manually-configured IP setup or the default automatic (DHCP) configuration. If you don ‘t know much about TCP/IP configurations and addresses, use the automatic mode to set it and forget it.

Both players can stream content from Netflix and also from your home media servers, so you can watch video clips, look at digital photos, and listen to MP3 music files and Internet radio from Pandora. The players will automatically configure themselves to the 1080p/24 frame-packing format when a 3D Blu-ray disc is loaded, and the default output resolution is 1080p for Samsung LCD and plasma TVs.

Full specifications and other product information are available here – http://www.samsung.com/us/video/tvs/UN46C7000WFXZA

Current Web prices on this TV range from $1,370 to $2,200 as of November 10, 2010.

Power consumption tests – Over an 8-hour period, the UN46C7000 consumed an average of 106.4 watts while in Movie mode with full-screen content.

3CD: Well, that was fun. I’m bored. What’s next?

I stopped in at my local Best Buy this past Saturday (10/30) to look for an inexpensive upscaling DVD player (yeah, I know that’s redundant) for my in-laws.

While I was there, I wandered around the store to see what was being showcased in the store demos. 3D, which was a big thing back in April, had clearly fizzled out – at least, as far as store personnel were concerned.

Of four possible 3D demo stations, only one had any glasses – the Sony Bravia 3D demo in the Magnolia section. A nearby Panasonic 3D demo had clips from Avatar rolling in 3D on a plasma TV, but not a pair of glasses to be found.

At the entrance to the Magnolia store was a Samsung 55-inch LCD 3D demo. Trouble was, the channel was set to a 2D telecast of the Michigan State – Iowa college football game and no 3D glasses were anywhere to be seen.

Behind the service counter in the regular TV section was yet another 3D demo, this time featuring the 46-inch UN46C7000 Samsung LCD TV. And just like my last visit, the TV was showing Monsters vs. Aliens in 2D, again sans 3D glasses.

A possible fifth demo at the end of one of the aisles used to feature Panasonic’s 50VT20 plasma, but it had been taken down. This was the only demo that had any working 3D glasses a few months back.

So, what was all the  buzz about at BB this time? Why, Sony Internet TV, of course!

If you think TV remotes are complicated, wait until you try THIS keyboard!

Yep, it’s time to get out on the Internet and dig for content, using Google’s search engine and Sony’s incredibly small and dense keyboard. I didn’t see a single person attempt to use it during my 30 minute visit to the store.

In addition to Sony’s support for Google TV, Logitech has a new set-top box you can connect to the Ethernet port on your existing TV – or to the HDMI input.

Sony also showed a new “Internet TV Blu-ray Disc Player” that incorporates the Google interface. It’s the silvery box in the lower middle part of the photo, and encourages you to “take advantage of Full HD 1080p Blu-ray Disc Capabilities.” (???) No mention of 3D anywhere in the exhibit, so there may be a ‘separation of church and state’ thing going on as far as Sony is concerned.

Oh, and that inexpensive upscaling DVD player? I wound up going down the street to 6th Avenue Electronics and scoring a Panasonic DVD-S58PP-K with HDMI output and CEC for $50. Can’t beat that with a stick.

3D TVs: Not Selling like Hotcakes?

Thinking about buying a 3D TV? You might be wise to sit on your hands for a while longer, because you’ll save a few hundred dollars and get more equipment at the checkout line to show for your patience.

Sunday’s Best Buy insert showed a Panasonic 3D TV package that includes the TC-P50VT20 3D plasma TV (comes with one pair of glasses, PLUS an extra two pairs of active shutter glasses, PLUS Geek Squad delivery and setup, all for $2249.96. That supposedly reflects a $700 savings over full list price. (The extra two pairs of glasses are valued at $300).

A few months ago, Panasonic announced a 3D bundle of the TC-P50VT20, one pair of glasses, and their BDT-300 3D Blu-ray player ($399.00) for $2,899, exclusively at Best Buy. That package likely ran out of gas quickly because there are only a handful of 3D Blu-ray discs available to watch right now.

So Best Buy’s new deal shifts focus to ESPN’s 3D coverage of the World Cup soccer matches, which started on June 11. All fine and dandy, but the ‘catch’ is that some cable TV customers will have to upgrade to newer Samsung, Pace, Motorola, and Cisco set-top boxes to receive the ESPN 3D channel – it can’t be done on older set-tops. (And good luck finding out exactly where and if ESPN 3D pops up in your service area!) UPDATE: Comcast is carrying the ESPN 3D signal in the 1080i side-by-side format, encoded as MPEG2 @ 18 Mb/s.

Samsung and Best Buy may have put together an even better deal. For $2769, you can get a UN55C7000 55-inch 240Hz LCD TV (LED backlit, of course) PLUS a BD-C6900 Blu-ray player, PLUS a 3D starter kit (two pairs of AS glasses and a copy of Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D), PLUS the Geek Squad delivery and setup as before. Don’t need a 55-inch screen? Substitute a UN40C7000 40-inch LCD 3D TV, and the price drops to $1799.

The 3D ‘kit’ is all yours for about $2800 bucks.

‘New kid on the block’ HH Gregg (at least, new in eastern Pennsylvania) has the same deal on the 55-inch set, or you can go with a 46-inch model for $2139. (They don’t mention anything about installation and setup, though.) Sixth Avenue Electronics also has the 55-inch and 46-inch packages, and will do free delivery and installation on both.

The Sears Sunday flier states that you can get the BD-C6900 BD player and the 3D starter kit free with the purchase of any Samsung 3D TV, which might be the best deal of all. They’ve priced the 46-inch LN46C750 3D TV (CCFL backlight) at $1529, while Samsung’s PN-50C7000 3D plasma TV is tagged at $1799.

Imagine that. We’re barely three months from all those big 3D product launches in New York, and prices have already started dropping like a stone. To make matters even more interesting, XpanD announced a few months ago at the NAB show that they plan to introduce universal ‘learning’ active shutter glasses to the marketplace later this year, which will directly impact the sales of proprietary AS glasses.

These bundled prices make you wonder about the real value of the glasses and Blu-ray players. In a business where margins are very tight, accessories such as glasses, cables, and even installation services are very important to the bottom line. Both the Panasonic and Samsung BD players list for $400, but my guess is that neither is selling very well right now: Hence, Panasonic’s decision to de-emphasize the player and Samsung’s ploy to throw theirs in as an extra to drive TV sales.

What will be telling is how much this year’s World Cup 3D coverage drives TV sales. You may recall that the World Cup did little or nothing to stimulate sales of HDTVs four years ago because Asian TV manufacturers overlooked an obvious fact: World Cup fanatics in Europe prefer to watch matches in pubs and taverns with their pals – not at home.

While ESPN is to be commended for making a substantial effort and investment to produce 3D coverage, it’s unfortunate that one of the least-appealing sports to Americans (historically speaking) is the focus of this coverage and not something like baseball, or basketball (NBA Finals), or even tennis.

What happens after July 11, when the Cup tournament concludes? How much 3D coverage will be available to drive TV sales throughout the summer?

Apparently not very much, based on the announcements made to date. And that means we’re likely to see even bigger discounts on 3D TV packages by September.

(By the way, none of the package deals I mentioned includes an HDMI cable. Hey, retailers have to make a buck someplace!)

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3D: All revved up, but nowhere to go!

How much fun would it be to buy a new sports car if there wasn’t any gas available to power it, or roads to drive it on?

That’s exactly the situation that today’s consumers are facing with 3D TVs: There just isn’t enough content to watch on them. And it’s even more of a problem with 3D movies, as manufacturers have inked several deals giving them exclusive rights to bundle specific 3D movie releases with their 3D TVs and Blu-ray players.

Remember when HDTV first got off the ground, back in 1998? There wasn’t a whole lot of HD content to watch, aside from a few prime time shows on CBS and the occasional movie on ABC.

Consequently, retail demand for HDTVs didn’t really take off until HD programming picked up with movies on HBO, an expanded slate of shows and sports on major TV networks, and the introduction of HD program services by Dish Network. The 2000 Super Bowl, the first to be broadcast in HD, helped generate more interest in HDTV sets.

Even so, it took a few more years before the ball really got rolling and events such as the 2004 Olympics, the Stanley Cup, NBA Playoffs, and World Series were all broadcast in HD formats.

While it’s true that 3D programming choices will expand considerably this month as ESPN launches its World Cup 3D coverage and DirecTV begins 24/7 3D broadcasts, the pickings are slim when it comes to 3D movies.

Those exclusive ‘bundling’ deals are part of the reason. Samsung has locked up 3D Blu-ray distribution of the Shrek franchise (four movies in all) for the rest of 2010, and had a recent exclusive deal for 3D BD copies of Monsters vs. Aliens.

Panasonic has a similar deal to ship 3D BD copies of Coraline and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs in 3D with their 3D TVs, and apparently will have first dibs on Avatar when it’s released in 3D this fall, according to the Web site www.hollywoodinhighdef.com.

What’s more, Sony is apparently negotiating a deal with Disney to have exclusive rights to the 3D BD release of Alice in Wonderland this fall, bundling it with Sony 3D Bravia TVs and BD players. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is supposed to be the first ‘open’ 3D BD release later this month, but even it will be part of a Sony 3D TV bundle (no surprise there, Cloudy was released by Sony Pictures!).

They jury’s still out on whether 3D in the home will be a success. But limiting the pipeline of 3D movies to a trickle at this critical juncture simply isn’t good business. If TV manufacturers really wanted to drive sales, they should pick up the costs of 3D BD mastering for popular movies and let distributors flood the market with these movies.

Frankly, I’m surprised the Blu-ray Marketing Association and Digital Entertainment Group aren’t lobbying more vigorously for this approach. The Blu-ray format hasn’t exactly been an overwhelming success, and 3D is a way for it to ‘niche’ its way forward as the replacement for red laser DVDs. (Incorporating DVRs and BD-R capacity into BD players is another, equally important way to drive adoption of the BD format.)

The DVD format wasn’t hamstrung like this, when it launched in 1997. Players were expensive at the time, but within months, consumers had plenty of DVD movies to choose from at retail, and it didn’t take long for rental stores to start offering them, either.

Reverting back to my analogy: For now, consumers can enjoy their shiny new sports car while it sits in the garage, or zips around the neighborhood. But until those fast roads get built and there is an ample supply of fuel, consumers will continue to drive around in their older sedans and SUVs.

Supply drives demand these days in the HDTV business. Come on, Hollywood – when will the floodgates open on 3D Blu-ray movies?

Aside to Netflix: What’s YOUR timetable for 3D movie streaming? Hmmm?