IFA and 3D Wars: Blu-Ray is Once Again Obsolete

Posted by Rob Enderle, principal analyst, Enderle Group

Column IFA is the big consumer electronics conference in Europe and it is vastly better timed than CES coming before the holiday season so you can get excited about stuff to buy rather than right after when you are trying to hide from your credit card bill.   

There is a lot of cool stuff here at the show but something that immediately jumped out at me was that Panasonic and Sony were effectively announcing both the obsolescence of existing Blu-Ray and HD TV products but a new format war this time for 3D.   The 3D demonstrations were hot but having two large vendors once again not in agreement as to which one will be adopted brings back bad memory of other format wars and I want to hide under my desk.  This won’t show up until late 2010 and both vendors are showing both Movie and Gaming 3D content.    

The Two Formats

Based on what both vendors showcased it appears that Sony is going the Dolby Real 3D route that uses polarized glasses and is most common in the best 3D theaters at the moment. Panasonic is using active shutter glasses which is a vastly more complex, but often better looking, alternative that requires much more expensive glasses and isn’t common in theaters.    The active glasses approach does results in a better overall picture but the glasses have to be powered they have to receive a signal in order to synchronize their shutters and the glasses tend to be comparatively expensive.   

The Polarized approach is vastly easier and less expensive to do but screen angle can be a problem and the result generally isn’t as realistic (at least not to my eye).    In short the Sony approach is more affordable and the Panasonic is more interesting technically.  Both technologies have come a long way and after watching both demos I think I would be personally very happy with either.   

The good news is that the same recording equipment can generally be used to create either output format but it is likely that cameras tuned for one approach or the other will provide a better result when the film is shown in a similar fashion.   Both Sony and Panasonic make cameras that favor their particular approach.   

It is possible that one Blu-Ray player and one Blu-Ray disk could embrace both formats but neither camp talked about or demonstrated this.   The market would clearly prefer this be the case because it would dramatically reduce the risk of buying into either technology.  

Next Generation 3D Looks Great

As I said above the image out of both of these systems is stunning.  In some cases it looks more like you are looking through a window than into a TV screen and High Definition 3D sports is really the closest to being there I’ve ever experienced.   This is a short way of saying when you see this you are likely going to want it and want it badly.

Panasonic showed a trailer of the upcoming movie Avatar , not to be confused with another live action movie called Avatar the Last Airbender that will be coming out next year. I’m a big fan of the Airbender series but am looking forward to both movies as the first Avatar is solid Science Fiction and I live to see movies like this.  

But just as it is confusing to have two movies that are vastly different coming out close together with the name “Avatar” having two 3D formats isn’t exactly a great thing for technology adoption.

Blu-Ray and HDTVs Are Now Obsolete

Both formats require high cycle rate TVs putting out 120Hz or better for smooth frame rates.  In addition both vendors showcased new 3D capable Blu-Ray players suggesting existing players would once again be left behind and you can’t mix and match the solutions, once again, based on the presentations you will need TV compliant with Panasonic’s 3D standard to work properly with their new Blu-Ray player and the same will be true of Sony.  

As with most things initially this will come in at the high end of the market and their will likely be a very small amount of available content in either format for awhile.  We will probably go through a couple of years with the two vendor arguing which format is best, one will outspend the other and by something around 2012 to 2013 we’ll have something that looks like a common standard.  Granted, by then, there will likely be several camps of vendors fighting over something else but this suggests you can wait this out for at least a couple of years.   

Wrapping Up:

New technology is great and this 3D stuff is very compelling but with at least two large vendors fighting over standards it will likely be safest to sit this out for awhile and wait until the dust settles before jumping on the bandwagon for either camp. My hope is we get through this conflict relatively quickly because this new 3D technology is truly stunning and I can’t wait to have it in my home.  My other hope is that at some point the industry will figure out that having these fights with products does the market scares away buyers and come to agreement on a common standard before going to market.   I also hope for world peace which is probably more likely.   One final hope; and that is that someone develops glasses for these things that don’t make you look like a total dork when you wear them.   Now that I think IS doable.  

In any case if you get a chance to see one of these 3D technologies demonstrated, take it, it will give you a feeling for where you might want to spend your money next decade.  

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.