Costly, Incompatible Glasses Threaten 3D TV Sales

Manufacturers rush to market before they work out a standard for required eyewear.

XpanD's 3D glasses are already used in overseas theaters.

There are multiple reasons the glasses are different, but there are two big issues for compatibility. "It's how the signal is emitted from the set and what's carried in the signal," says Panasonic's Fannon, who has been involved in early industry discussions on establishing standards.

There are assorted ways that TV sets "talk" to 3D glasses. Projectors typically use a flash of white light that bounces off the screen into the glasses. A few manufacturers link their LCDs with the glasses via radio technology, such as Bluetooth. Most LCD and plasma makers are using infrared signals. But even they are incompatible, much as infrared remote controls won't work with different makes of TVs.

Manufacturers also use different protocols, or software, to ensure fidelity and timing. Each thinks it has the best approach, although early discussions to set standards have spawned a formal process. Just underway, the talks could take a year or two to produce a standard—if they succeed at all. But optimists hope that TVs sold in 2011 will meet an industry standard. "I think manufacturers will soon realize the incompatibility is inhibiting adoption," says Heidi Hoffman of the 3D@Home Consortium, an industry group.

Or they need universal glasses that will work across manufacturer lines, much like universal remotes can work with different gear. That's the approach of XpanD, a European company that makes active-shutter glasses. It has dominated the overseas market for glasses used in theaters, says Ami Dror, a cofounder of the company. Now the company is readying universal glasses that can work with TVs that use infrared signals. The new model is due in June at a price of about $125, Dror says.

But the glasses won't work with sets that use Bluetooth or projectors that use white light. Truly universal glasses will come later, perhaps by Christmas. They'll also be much more expensive, probably more than $300, Dror says. And he is hesitant to predict that the glasses will ever be truly cheap, selling for $25 or even $50 a pair. Not good glasses, anyway. And bad glasses can contribute to eyestrain and headaches from watching 3D, Dror says.

At least the glasses will get more stylish. As a start, the universal XpanD glasses coming in June will be available in 12 different colors. More styles will follow.

And Dror is among those who predict that a standard technology will soon emerge or that manufacturers will begin boxing universal eyewear with their sets. The problem is that the big makers entered a race to get their 3D sets to market first, he says. "They didn't really have time to figure out the glasses."