Tokyo: Flat-panel television screens can't get much flatter and consumers don't want the screens to get much wider, so Japanese television makers are banking on a whole new dimension to buttress their lineups.
High-definition three-dimensional TV is the future, or so Panasonic and Sony hope, as they seek to stem a slide in prices and re-energize a market slowed by the global recession.
The biggest problem the companies face, however, is staring them right in the face. Viewers will need to wear those goofy, ill-fitting glasses, just as they have to when watching 3-D movies in a theater. Without them, the screen looks nauseatingly blurry.
The expected high price of 3-D systems - the special television screens, glasses and Blu-ray DVD players - could also discourage all but home theater buffs.
Neither Sony nor Panasonic has announced a price for their 3-D offerings. Panasonic said market research had shown that its 50-inch model might sell for $2,000. And at $50 a pair, a family of four would be paying as much for the glasses as a small high-definition television costs.
A poll from the research firm In-Stat found that while 64 percent of respondents expressed at least some interest in watching 3-D programming at home, 25 percent of those interested said they would not pay more than for a regular television.
"From a consumer experience standpoint, I'm skeptical, because I can't see consumers sitting at home wearing glasses," said David Gibson, the head of research at Macquarie Capital Securities. "It's a good idea, but it's a niche market for now."
Still, Panasonic is betting that its eye-popping imagery will win over more than a few fans. A prototype 50-inch Viera plasma 3-D set attracted long lines at the CEATEC electronics show in Tokyo this week. Beating rivals to the market could also provide a boost for its plasma technology, which has been losing out to liquid-crystal displays.
In a 3-D clip from "Toy Story," Pixar's computer-animated film, Rex the green tyrannosaurus looked so ready to leap off the screen that the crowd gasped.
The technology works by rapidly alternating between left and right frames of the video. Viewers wear glasses that sync with the television over an infrared signal. The right frame is seen only with the right eye and the left frame with the left eye, creating the illusion of depth.
"We are serious about the future of 3-D," said Masayuki Kozuka, a leader on Panasonic's 3-D team. "We will not have succeeded until half of all TVs we sell are 3-D TVs."
Sony showed off a similar technology, which it hopes to deploy in some Bravia televisions and Vaio notebook PCs in 2010. PlayStation 3 video game consoles could also be fitted with 3-D technology, said Yutaka Nakamura, a Sony spokesman.
Samsung Electronics of South Korea has also shown a 3-D prototype.
The movie industry has been the biggest cheerleader of 3-D technology, and television makers are hoping that enthusiasm will help persuade consumers to replicate the 3-D experience at home. Hollywood raised its output of 3-D movies in recent years to lure people into theaters. There will be around 7,000 3-D movie screens by the end of 2009, according to Sony.
Hollywood, in fact, has long been obsessed with the technology. In the 1950s, a flurry of 3-D films like "Man in the Dark" and "House of Wax" were released. Another round of stereoscopic 3-D films that had viewers wearing red-and-green glasses hit screens in the 1970s. But with poor color quality and unsteady images that induced nausea, 3-D didn't take off.
Hollywood hopes that the third time will be the charm. Studios are eager to sell 3-D films on Blu-ray discs, too. Panasonic and 20th Century Fox worked together to promote the forthcoming James Cameron sci-fi thriller "Avatar," the first major nonanimation film being released worldwide in both 2-D and 3-D formats.
Television makers, in turn, hope that by helping to promote 3-D technology on the big screen, broadcasters will follow Hollywood's lead and start offering 3-D programming. Many stumbling blocks remain, however, including the added costs of filming and broadcasting 3-D images.
Some analysts are upbeat on the prospects for 3-D television. Alfred Poor, an analyst for the GigaOM Network of high-tech news Web sites, predicted in a recent report that TV makers could ship as many as 46 million 3-D sets by 2013, adding that high sales volume would drive prices down. Analysts at Gartner played it safer in their "Hype Cycle" report, giving a fuzzier timeline of five to 10 years for 3-D to catch on.
Japanese electronics makers have for years been losing market share to competitors from South Korea, while more recently watching competitors from Taiwan and China take even more. By capitalizing on Japan's technological prowess, manufacturers here can at least differentiate themselves from lower-priced rivals, who sell under brand names like Vizio and Haier.
It is a risky bet. High-end spending could be the last to rebound. "The world has become increasingly frugal, compounding the plight of Japanese producers, as demand for high-end manufactured goods dries up," said Ryutaro Kono, chief economist for Japan at BNP Paribas.
The theme at the Tokyo electronics show was decidedly high-end. Toshiba's Cell Regza 55-inch television does not yet offer 3-D, but can display eight high-definition broadcasts at once in eight windows. The set, which uses the Cell microchip found in PlayStation game machines, can also record all eight channels nonstop for 26 hours, according to a company spokeswoman, Kaori Hiraki. The price tag: about a million yen, or $11,000.
Meanwhile, a Hitachi prototype used a camera sensor to allow users to control the TV by gesturing. "You're saying to the TV, 'Notice me,'" said Takashi Matsubara, a Hitachi spokesman.