High-profile hardware makers unveil latest at confab

Electronics manufacturers have watched as “Avatar” has wowed moviegoers at the megaplex. Now they hope 3D will do the same thing in living rooms.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Wednesday, a slew of high-profile hardware makers unveiled the next generation of television sets and Blu-ray players set to find their way onto store shelves as early as this year. These products make clear that 3D is about to make a big leap to smaller screens.

Among the majors, Sony Electronics, Samsung and LG Electronics introduced its first 3D-enabled Blu-ray players during Wednesday press conferences at CES, with models expected to become available to buy this summer.

Sony also pushed its new line of 3D TV sets, ranging from 40 to 60 inches. They will come bundled with 3D glasses and a 3D transmitter, the latter of which will also be sold to play back screen-jumping visuals on a new line of 3D-ready TVs.

Samsung is a 3D TV pioneer, having launched 3D LCD and plasma sets in 2007 and 2008. Being first may not have proved too beneficial, however. It’s only been in recent months that broadcasters, studios and other content providers have started readying plans for 3D content to play on those TVs.

Some of the company’s new TVs include 3D outputs and the ability to automatically convert 2D video to 3D.

While introducing its own 3D-ready TVs, LG promoted a new partnership with Skype, whose video conferencing technology will be integrated into new sets, enabling consumers to make free video and voice calls over the Internet using their TVs and a webcam.

The availability of programming encouraged more manufacturers to roll out their 3D hardware.

It’s easy to say you have a 3D TV, but then what do you watch on it?” said Buzz Hays, senior VP of the Sony 3D Technology Center, whose formation was announced Wednesday and will operate not only as a resource for Sony but for all of Hollywood.

The center has been developing new content with Sony Pictures and the parent company’s videogames, music and other divisions to show on Sony’s new line of 3D TVs “so that when someone buys a Sony 3D television, they have a reason to buy it. It’s not just a novelty to show their friends three demos and that’s it,” Hays said.

Panasonic is even helping DirecTV launch three new 3D channels this summer and will brand the effort in order to promote its hardware.

“We are taking a technology that at one time could only be seen in a theater and bringing it into the living rooms of the largest audience in the United States,” said Eric Shanks, executive vice president, DirecTV Entertainment. “Adding the most HD channels to our lineup gave customers a viewing experience that was incredibly lifelike; adding 3D to the mix will take that one step further allowing them to become part of the cast as the picture comes to life in their living rooms.”

Other devices are also going 3D. Sony announced a wireless 3D 5.1 channel Blu-ray home theater system that can access Sony’s Gracenote database technology to display disc cover art, actor and production information.

Pricing has not yet been revealed on most of the new devices.

Internet connectivity is also expected to become standard in new Blu-ray players in the future. Most of Sony’s, Samsung’s, Panasonic’s and LG’s new Blu-ray players include wireless Internet connections.

Sony’s 3D Blu-ray player can access the company’s Bravia Internet video programming, which includes Netflix downloads, Amazon Video on Demand and YouTube, among other online services. In addition, the new player will wirelessly grab stored photos, music and video from PCs for viewing on TVs, a function that has been common on Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

LG’s wireless set-top box goes one step further and carries an unusually large 250 GB hard drive, enabling users to store their movies, TV shows and other video programming, as well as photos, music and other media, directly on their players. Player bows this year and will also connect to online movie download service Vudu. Consumers will also be able to copy and archive their CDs onto the player’s drive using new feature MusicID. Powered by Sony-owned Gracenote, MusicID will also allow a user to hear an entire song playing within a movie or TV show.

The mass adoption of Apple’s iPods and iPhones has encouraged electronics makers to embrace the handhelds as well, with Sony enabling several of its Blu-ray players and TVs to be controlled using the mobile devices.

And if consumer can’t use their iPods as remote controls, companies like Samsung are creating their own iPod-like remotes.

The company’s TVs will include a touch-screen remote control that will let a user watch live TV on the handset while viewing a Blu-ray movie on his TV screen.

Of course, all of the 3D devices were already in development before “Avatar” bowed in December; all of the companies had been boasting about the ability to bring 3D to homes for some time. But the hardware makers were gambling that 3D would be the next big thing that would encourage consumers to upgrade the TVs and Blu-ray players in their homes. It may prove a bet worth making.

Studios aren’t writing off 3D at home as just another gimmick to sell more hardware. It should also help sell more movies, especially on Blu-ray.

3D will give Blu-ray a second boost,” said Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros.’ Home Entertainment Group. “It will be a further reason on why people want to convert” from DVD.

Hays said Hollywood has been actively producing 3D films and other fare for the last five years, and “we’ve learned the difference between good and bad 3D.”

Avatar” has helped “legitimize” the 3D format, he said. “It’s put a cap on a year when people thought it was still a novelty. Now a legitimate filmmaker chose this method to tell his story.”

Hays continued, “We want 3D to be an extension of (consumers’) reality instead of being reminded that they’re watching some kind of technology,” he said. “We want to create things you couldn’t get unless you did it in 3D.”

(Susanne Ault contributed to this report).

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