Glasses-Free 3D HDTV Coming This Year!

Okay, your wishes have been heard and the display gods are going to give you what you asked for. Just remember that when you get it, I told you so.

One of the big splashes at CES 2012 was the unveiling of Toshiba’s monster 55″ 3D HDTV, and to the breathless adoration of the technology press, it doesn’t require that you wear glasses to see the 3D images! But wait, it gets even better! This display has 4K by 2K resolution, which means that it is the equivalent of four 1080p panels tiled together. Amazing! And while the details were not announced, the expectation is that it may ship in the U.S. as soon as the second quarter of this year. If all this sounds like what you’ve been hoping for, then do us both a favor and stop reading right here.

I mean it. Don’t read the rest of this. I’m only going to break your heart.

Okay, here’s the rest of the story. The panel uses the same sort of nine-position lenticular technology that we’ve seen for a long time. Philips sold a commercial version of a 9-view no-glasses 3D high definition display nearly six years ago, which won a Gold Award from the Society for Information Display in 2006. The biggest technological news is that Toshiba has been able to use a 4K panel in the system, which is a good thing. The way the multi-view works, the image gets divided up among the viewers so this Toshiba HDTV delivers only a 720p image to each viewer when watching 3D. (You do get the full 4K resolution when viewing 2D content, but that’s just scaled up 1080p images because there is no source for 4K content yet.) Yes, the Toshiba set does have head-tracking for the center position, which means you can move around a little and the “sweet spot” will follow you, but the company recommends that you turn this off when watching with others present.

And here’s the big problem. When watching with others, you’ve got to sit in one of those nine sweet spots. That means that you have to adjust to the TV, instead of the other way around. Are you ready to rearrange your living room furniture so that everyone can see the 3D image? And don’t try to sit too close together, because it won’t work.

Now, the technology problems alone are probably enough to kill this product, but there’s one other factor that guarantees that it will flop in the marketplace. The set is selling in Japan now for $10,000. As Toshiba’s own VP Scott Ramirez has said repeatedly, there is no market for televisions above $2,5000. This new set may sell to rich enthusiasts and technology collectors, but it doesn’t stand a chance of becoming a mass market success when you can buy five or more sets that uses inexpensive passive glasses for the same price, and you may even get a Blu-ray player for each one in the bargain.

Toshiba gave people something to talk about at CES, but we’re still years away from a practical no-glasses 3DTV for the average living room. And I’m not yet convinced that we’ll every get there.