This is the first holiday season that 3-D TV sets have hit retailers in meaningful numbers, and you can practically see the visions of dollar signs dancing in everybody's head. But even if 3-D TV is as wondrous as the electronics industry keeps telling us, it's nowhere near as easy as going to a theater, plunking down $14 and donning a pair of funny-looking glasses. You need to round up the right hardware. You need to seek out 3-D content. And you need to be prepared for some disappointment, both in the quality of the images onscreen and the selection of DVDs available.
As with early HDTVs, 3-D sets have been costly $1,500 and way, way up not so much because manufacturers are charging a vast premium as because they're adding the technology to their top-of-the-line models. (This, by the way, means that any 3-D TV you buy should also do high-definition 2-D well.) Although prices have started to come down as I write this, Amazon is offering a basic Samsung 50-in. (127 cm) 3-D plasma for $900 there are some key accessories you'll need to buy, like a 3-D Blu-ray player, which runs from $150 to $250. You may also need to replace your cables or get a new set-top box.
Oh yeah, and don't forget the eyewear. Nearly all 3-D sets currently on the market use something called active-shutter technology: LCDs in the glasses flash on and off so each eye sees a different image, and your brain fuses them into one three-dimensional picture. Most glasses list for around $150, which gets pricey fast for big families, and are designed to work only with TVs from the same manufacturer. Industry standards that should allow for greater compatibility (not to mention bring down costs) are in the works; meanwhile, a company called Xpand recently started selling a $130 pair of universal spectacles that are adjustable for different TV brands.
But in-home 3-D's biggest gotcha is that there isn't much to watch yet. For example, ESPN 3D, launched in June, has just eight broadcasts scheduled for December. Only a handful of 3-D Blu-ray discs are available, mostly computer-generated cartoons. Exclusive deals between studios and TV makers have made the scarcity problem even worse. Avatar is the best evidence to date that 3-D is an art form rather than a gimmick, but the only way to watch it in 3-D at home this season is to buy the Panasonic hardware it's bundled with.
It's also not a given that you'll like what you see. At its best, 3-D TV does bring the theater experience home, but some stuff looks as if it had been shot in Blurryvision, and so-called upconversion of 2-D movies makes people look like paper dolls trapped in a three-dimensional world.
For all these reasons, it might be best to join the three-dimensional revolution in baby steps. If you're in the market for a new HDTV, consider a 3-D model; if you're finally retiring your DVD player for Blu-ray, buy a 3-D-capable box. By the time you're fully equipped, there should be more to watch, with fewer technical kinks.
Simply holding out for the next generation of 3-D TV works too. It'll be better, cheaper and more plentiful in 2011 than it is now, and even more so in 2012. That's one of the nice things about technology: the longer you wait, the more wondrous it gets.