WHEN THE LEADING electronics company Panasonic churns up enthusiasm for a new technology, the tidal waves can sweep the world.
And when it picks a side in a format battle - as the company did in the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD high definition videodisc "war," the guys on the other team should probably start planning their exit strategy.
(Aside: "Never-say-die" HD-DVD developer Toshiba is about to introduce its first line of Blu-ray-equipped products.)
So when Panasonic Corp. executive Bob Perry told me last week that the company's Full HD 3-D technology is "the next big thing in consumer electronics" and coming to the home by fall 2010, I'm thinking we should take the man at his word.
PEACE IN THE VALLEY?: "There will be no format battle this time," Perry vowed, in my visit to Panasonic's Secaucus, N.J., headquarters for a preview of the technology. "Sony is with us on this. Our 'Full HD' will be a de facto standard for displays, and a 3-D Blu-ray Disc format will be standardized in the next few months."
That's enough time, Perry predicted, for about 100 3-D movies to be prepared for disc release along with the hardware for the 2010 holiday shopping season.
High on the list will surely be recent theatrical 3-D hits like Pixar/Disney's "Up" and DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens," both of which their respective studios have decided not to release to the home video market in the current, (very) old school 3-D format using those funky, red and blue-lensed "anaglyph" glasses that ruin the colors of a movie.
But the blockbuster that Panasonic hopes will really rock your world, and get you thinking about upgrading equipment to 3-D is James Cameron's "Avatar," a 10-year, $300 million project that has been the director's obsession since his blockbuster "Titanic" and which is finally, surely coming to theaters on Dec. 18.
MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY: Panasonic gear was used in the making of Cameron's sci-fi spectacle, "a heroic battle to save a civilization" set on a distant moon. And the electronics company has just announced a massive, worldwide campaign jointly promoting the movie and Panasonic's ambitions to be the 3-D leader on the home video front.
Think mobile, tractor-trailer truck-mounted Full HD 3-D theaters crisscrossing the country (and Europe) this fall, inviting folks aboard to preview these next big things on a 103-Dinch Panasonic 3-D screen. And think TV commercials, so caught up in the cinematic excitement that you might not know if the sponsor is the movie's distributor (20th Century Fox) or the TV maker.
Panasonic has done similar mind-melds, several times over, as a lead sponsor/celebrator of the Olympics. And whoa, did they capture fabulous, in-your-face, 3-D footage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, another treat sure to be featured in their high-tech, dog and pony show.
NOMENCLATURE EXPLAINED: The "Full HD" part of their branding relates to the fact that alternate left and right images are rapidly fired off the screen, 120 times a second in full 1080p resolution (that's 60 frames per side). A viewer wears infrared-light-triggered, liquid shutter glasses that consecutively blink open and shut, left and then right, in sync with the screen images. The brain puts these alternating images together and, voilà, we see pictures with the same three-dimensional depth that our two eyes take in the world.
"Unlike other 3-D systems that have been put out there," (talking about Samsung, or your former employer Mitsubishi, Bob?) "there is no compromise in our image quality," said Perry.
That's the kind of talk that makes movie purists like Cameron very happy. And it probably doesn't bother the movie studios that cable and satellite broadcasters will be reluctant, at least for a while, to devote the extra bandwidth it takes to deliver a Full HD 3-D channel to subscribers. All the better to sell hard-copy discs and the pricier, pay-per-view 3-D versions that CinemaNow and Vudu plan to slowly download onto consumers' hard drive devices.
Yes, a TV has to work harder, run faster to process 3-D images. "Our current 600 Hz" (600 cycles per second) "plasma technology is well suited, but we'll still have to upgrade components for the new sets," said the Panasonic guy. "The bonus is that the added power will make conventional TV look better, too."
And he predicts that makers of LCD TVs will also speed up their display technology to cope with 3-D. Perhaps to this end, Samsung (and maybe others) will introduce 400 Hz displays at the IFA electronics show in Berlin next week.
MORE TO BUY: Of course, a new breed of Blu-ray Disc and player will be needed to deliver this more data-intensive content load - "though it's not exactly double a regular high-def movie," explained Perry. "First you encode a full frame. That's the left side image. Then for the next, right eye frame, you only have to deliver the difference in the picture from that perspective." Today's 50 GB capacity Blu-ray Disc will suffice to hold a 3-D movie, "though we may have to sacrifice a few of those prized extras everyone watches," Perry said, tongue-in-cheek.
A new standard HDMI 1.4 connector cable with slightly different connectors on the ends will also be required to get components connected and the show going. That requirement will slow the introduction of 3-D on video game consoles - hey, Sony has just introduced the PlayStation 3 Slim - though Perry said the growing number of 3-D titles for PCs, including Ubisoft's "G-Force" and upcoming "Avatar: The Video Game," will be playable on his Panasonic 3-D TVs through a multi-pin computer jack hookup.
CRANK IT UP?: In my recent time in a Panasonic Full HD 3-D theater, I found the image quality to be razor sharp, deep and involving. A clip from Disney's "Bolt" was especially loaded with shot-out-of-the-blue, in-your-face treats.
My only complaint is that, as with 3-D movies shown theatrically on "silver" (really aluminum) surfaced screens, the picture brightness is significantly diminished by those blinking left/right shutter lenses. Think about it. The glasses effectively blackout one eye's view whenever the other is open, reducing light intake by 50 percent.
For current demos, Panasonic is using another vendor's 3-D shutter glasses, pretty comfortable, which run on a 250-hour capacity button battery and have a tinted, sunglasses look about them. Hopefully, when Panasonic's own viewing spectacles come out of the lab, they'll let a little more light shine in our eyes.