Cost, lack of content hinder television’s new dimension

The local movie theater isn’t the only place you’ll be able to see an action-packed blockbuster in 3-D this summer. The “you are here” feeling of 3-D is now available for your living room, as well.

Still, you will need to spend a lot more than a $10 movie ticket to experience 3-D at home. Indeed, it will take roughly 300 trips to the theater—or 150 if you bring a date each time—before a 3-D TV in your living room equals the cost of going to a show. That doesn’t include the cost of buying or renting a 3-D DVD, but it doesn’t include the cost of popcorn, either.

Televisions capable of showing 3-D fare are arriving at electronics retailers, with models from Panasonic, Samsung and LG already for sale and Sony sets expected this summer. Others will soon follow, including options from low-price leader Vizio.

If there ever was a technology primed for early adopters willing to pay to be first, it is 3-D TV. To watch a 3-D movie at home, you’ll need a new TV, a new Blu-ray player and at least one pair of glasses (or two if you have a date). And forget about stealing a pair from the movie theater; you’ll need specially powered glasses to make 3-D work on your home TV. Thankfully, most manufacturers are including one pair of 3-D glasses with new 3-D TV sets.

Unfortunately, the involved set-up won’t necessarily make deciding what to watch any easier. In fact, it might make it more difficult, considering that right now, there aren’t many 3-D channels or movies out there. Only a handful of movies are available (how often can you watch Monsters vs. Aliens?) and the slate of 3-D broadcast programming expected from Discovery and ESPN is still months away. Still, some cable systems and broadcasters have started to broadcast select sporting events, such as the Masters golf championship, in 3-D.

Nonetheless, you can forge ahead if you want. To entice buyers and soften the blow of the high prices, this new living-room technology commands, retailers are “bundling” plans for 3-D TV equipment. Best Buy, for example, is offering a Panasonic bundle for about $3,000—a 50-inch 3-D TV, a 3-D Blu-ray player and one pair of glasses. Initial prices for 3-D TVs are expected to cost $400-$800 more than comparably sized HD TVs; 3-D Blu-ray players will cost about $400 (twice the standard price); and each pair of glasses will cost about $120, which means if you have a family of four (or a bunch of friends who want to come over for 3-D movie night), you should expect to spend $600 on glasses.

Those prices will discourage many of the curious but they won’t turn away all of the first movers.

Estimates vary about how quickly 3-D TVs will be adopted in U.S. living rooms. Sony hopes that 10 percent of the TVs it sells over the next fiscal year will be 3-D models (after they arrive in June). Meantime, the Consumer Electronics Association believes at least 1 million 3-D sets will be sold in the United States this year.

“In a few years, I do think that 3-D TV capabilities will be integrated into TV sets, much as we expect Web connectivity to be a part of most displays,” Kurt Scherf, principal analyst for Parks Associates, writes in a blog post. “I heard other [consumer electronics] manufacturers at the Consumer Electronics Show indicate that 30 percent to 40 percent of their displays may be 3-D capable in five years.”

If you are curious as to how 3-D technology will translate from the big screen to your living room’s (relatively) small screen, head down to an electronics store and check out a demo. I recently visited two TV retailers to test sets from Sony and Samsung. The 50-inch Sony was a production model while the 40-inch Samsung was available for $2,000.

In my demonstrations, 3-D looked as good on a TV as it did in the theater.

Clips from a European soccer match (that Sony included on its demonstration roll) were particularly stunning in 3-D. There was real depth of field that made the action feel much closer than it actually was, particularly from field-level shots.

The in-store tests made me think of how cool it would be to put a 3-D camera behind home plate to get a clear view of the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand and heads toward your TV at 90 mph. I’d love to watch that. Another thought: The NHL needs a 3-D goalie cam!

Other items on the Sony reel included a clip from Wheel of Fortune (although that’s probably not why you’d want 3-D TV) and a few video games.

Watching a movie in 3-D was like watching a 3-D movie at the theater. Things jump out at you, objects float in space and you feel the movie surround you. I had to force myself to stop watching because I felt that I was being sucked in.

I had mixed feelings about the two 3-D video racing games I test-drove. The first one featured a brightly colored, futuristic track where race cars floated above the course. It was too much visual stimulation; I started to get a headache. The other video game featured a dune buggy racing through a sandy and sparsely forested landscape. This was much better, and it felt a little exhilarating when the dune buggy caught big air after a jump.

Gaming will likely be key to 3-D TVs integration into the home. Knowing this, Sony already plans to offer a free 3-D software upgrades for PlayStation 3 owners. When Sony launched the PS3, it played Blu-ray discs, not standard DVDs like previous versions. That was a factor that led to the demise of the rival HD-DVD format. With the PS3 supporting 3-D gaming, game-makers are more likely to invest in the technology.

Likewise, since the PS3 doubles as a movie player, you won’t need to buy a new 3-D Blu-ray player if you already have a PS3. But you’ll still need a few of those funky (and pricey) glasses if you want to invite any friends over to play those cool 3-D games with you.

Chicago-based technology columnist Eric Benderoff writes about consumer electronics and runs, an editorial services firm. He frequently discusses tech trends and new gadgets on various national radio and TV programs. Follow him on Twitter @ericbendy.