Interesting times for Amazon. Especially in the hardware space. First we get the surprise launch of their new set-top box, the Fire TV, now rumours are spreading of an imminent smartphone from the retail giant.
Not that this rumour is new, per se. We’ve been hearing speculation about an Amazon phone almost as long as we’ve been hearing about an HDTV from Apple. But this time, the rumour comes with a new level of specificity at least as it relates to a key tech spec: the handset will supposedly ship with a quad set of cameras that will enable a retina-tracking, glasses-free, 3D display.
Let’s assume for the time being that this phone, if real, will be a logical stable-mate to the existing Kindle Fire line of tablets. This would mean Amazon’s proprietary fork of Android and access to all of Amazon’s streaming services. Certainly not a bad set of specs. Especially if they include access to the Fire TV’s game store.
Frankly, if this was all there was to this rumoured handset, the right price would make it a very popular choice. Amazon’s tablets have received very favourable reviews and it seems likely that an Amazon phone would fare equally well.
But I’m troubled by the 3D aspect of the report. I know that movie studios continue to flog 3D on all of their mega-budget releases as a way of luring audiences to theatrical releases (with the correspondingly over-priced tickets). Some people even choose 3D over 2D when given the choice. Not me. I’m completely over 3D. Most of the time my brain becomes so accustomed to the effect that 20 minutes into the movie the only thing I’m noticing is the glasses on my face and the darker picture on the screen (non-3D movies are noticeably brighter).
As for home 3D? Fugedaboudit.
Even if we owned a 3D TV I doubt we’d ever use the 3D part. My neighbour, who is as big a movie buff as you’re likely to find, never uses his TV’s 3D capability. I suspect he’s far from an outlier on that count.
Which brings us back to why Amazon would choose to include 3D on a handset, especially when others have tried (and failed) to market one successfully.
The most obvious reason is that they want to enable traditional 3D content, i.e. movies and games. Nintendo has enjoyed relative success with their 3DS line of hand-held game consoles and those who have them assure me that the 3D part is really enjoyable (I’ll have to take their word for it).
But there may be a secondary element to Amazon’s 3D strategy: retail. Though I’ve never felt that the current model of multiple-angle images in gallery format was insufficient when looking at products online, perhaps Amazon wants to take the virtual shopping experience to the next level by giving shoppers a more immersive and realistic view of catalog items.
Could such an evolution in the display of retail objects (or indeed any objects) be a game-changer? My instinct is to say “no” purely based on my lacklustre experiences with 3D in other contexts. But I underestimated how profoundly popular having an “iPod Touch on steroids” would be when the iPad was first released, so I’m willing to concede that the experience of 3D shopping might be one of those things you need to see, before rendering judgment.
What are your thoughts on a 3D phone from Amazon?
I was recently pitched a story idea by a PR agency on why people should buy a new big-screen TV for the Big Game – the SuperBowl of course. But unless you’re still watching an old tube-TV that can’t manage HD of any description, your existing HDTV will be just fine for the most-televised sporting event of the year. That’s because – much to my surprise – the event is not being covered in 3D. If someone knows why, please leave a comment below.
But the same might not be true of another big event that will be gracing our screens later this year: The Royal Wedding of William and Kate, which if the persistent rumours are true, will be broadcast in 3D.
I know – I can already hear some of you groaning – but a 3D broadcast of the wedding makes a lot of sense. Royal watchers, of which there are plenty here in Canada, go to great lengths to be near the monarchy at these occasions and I know of at least one fan who already has her tickets booked to be there in person. But the majority of people will have to attend virtually. As the National Post has already pointed out, it would be very cool to see a location like Westminster Abbey in 3D.
Apart from giving monarchists the illicit thrill of “being there”, a 3D wedding broadcast could also help a fledgling industry gather valuable data in the form of viewer feedback on the pros and cons of this type of coverage. With 3D being so new to so many TV stations, there is plenty left to learn. James Cameron is adamant that the only 3D movies worth watching are the ones that were conceived of and executed specifically for the 3D format – anything less doesn’t measure up. If it’s true for movies, it’s probably true for TV too.
The Royal Wedding could also be a huge boon to television manufacturers. A lack of decent 3D content has long been cited as one the primary reasons why consumers have been slow to adopt 3D at home – though frankly I think there are many other factors at play. But if that is what has kept people from jumping on the bandwagon, I can’t think of many televised events – with the exception of the usual sports biggies (World Cup Soccer, SuperBowl and the Olympics) – that would beat a Royal Wedding for driving people into their local electronics retailer.
Interestingly, if the wedding does go all Avatar on us, there’s the possibility it will be shown in 3D-capable movie theatres for those who don’t own 3D TVs. With a projected audience of over a billion viewers, TV makers won’t be the only ones profiting from this event.
What do you think readers? Is a 3D broadcast of the wedding a good idea? If you don’t own a 3D TV, would this be a good enough reason to buy one? Let us know.
Update Feb 18: According to RoyalWeddingBlog.ca, the young couple have formally rejected the idea of 3D coverage for their wedding citing concerns about how much technology would need to be present at the event to make it happen.
This is the kind of week it’s been in the world of TV and video, with stories not necessarily in chronological order…
First up: The 3D debate got hotter and well, weirder, when Roger Ebert – who has maligned the technology openly in the past – declared the format “inferior and inherently brain-confusing.” To prop up his thesis, he quotes liberally from fellow 3D-denier and award-winning editor, Walter Murch – whose work you are familiar with if you’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now, Ghost or The English Patient.
Now there’s no question that Murch’s credentials as far as the art form of cinematic editing is beyond reproach. But in a recent letter to Ebert, he goes way beyond a critique of 3D from the perspective of editing, citing biological arguments against the format such as:
[…] the “CPU” of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for.
He’s referring to the process by which our eyes must try to converge on two different focal lengths in rapid succession. Now he may very well be right that this is the component of 3D that has caused undesirable effects amongst some viewers, but to claim that our very biology isn’t up to the task because of how we’ve evolved strikes me as a reach.
I get that Ebert hates 3D – heck I even agree with some of the points he’s made in the past – and I get that Murch isn’t impressed by it either, but I’m not buying the so-called scientific explanation as to why it sucks. Read the full post and see if you’re on-board or not.
Next: A new report suggests that this is the year we will see Blu-ray players for as little as $40 and 42″ LCD HDTVs coming in at under $300. Despite the fact that these devices will likely not support advanced features such as 3D, Wi-Fi or streaming, those are nonetheless stunning price points. It looks like 2011 will be the year that fantastic picture quality will be within reach of nearly every economic group in the West.
Finally, Pioneer and Sharp have announced that they will be creating a new line of LCD HTDVs that will bear the “Elite” badge – a marque that hasn’t graced a TV display since Pioneer discontinued its production of plasma panels last year. But this new venture, rather than being a rebirth of the TVs that earned CNET’s highest rating of any HDTV, appears to be at best a new line of LCD’s from Sharp with Pioneer’s Elite designation and at worst, nothing more than a re-badging of Sharp’s existing line-up of high-end models.
At first it might seem that this is a dig at Sharp. It isn’t. I’ve had the chance to audition their latest line-up of Quattron 3D TVs and I was duly impressed by their image quality and feature set. They’re good TVs. But they aren’t plasma and they aren’t Pioneer units – in short, they aren’t “Elite”. Now I realize I should withhold final judgement until I see the new Elites in the flesh, but I am (as you can tell) highly skeptical. I’m also a little stunned that Pioneer – a company that put plasma on the map – has decided to back LCD as a display technology after all this time. I would have much preferred that they partner with Panasonic, a company that has stayed the course on plasma and has inherited Pioneer’s HDTV crown as a result. Perhaps Pioneer believed that LCD will eventually eclipse plasma as the best display technology, or maybe they’re just looking for a more cost-effective way to re-enter the TV business without having to actually make their own glass. Either way, I worry that the Elite marque – so long a pinnacle of quality in the A/V space – will be diminished by this move.
Update, Jan 30: I knew I had forgotten something. Back on the 20th, CNET’s David Katzmaier wrote an interesting piece concerning the merits of active vs. passive 3D based on his experiences comparing VIZIO’s new passive-3D TV (XVT3D650SV) to Panasonic’s class-leading active-3D set (TC-P65VT25). The results are instructive for those who are looking to make their move into the 3D arena: Passive possesses quite a few advantages over active (and I suspect will become the standard soon) but falls short in one key area which I hadn’t previously realized – the VIZIO TV at least, can’t do full HD in 3D. Their passive system uses a circular polarizer to blend two 540p images – that’s half the resolution of Panny’s active system which can present the full 1080p signal to each eye. I’m sure as newer passive systems come on the market, this limitation will be overcome, but in the meantime, active 3D would seem to be the better choice for folks who aren’t willing to sacrifice a pixel of their Blu-ray material.
The future is here and it has a name: the Thing-O-Matic. The truth is, of course, once you get over how cool it is to be able to print real-world objects in three dimensions using little more than a PC, some inexpensive raw plastic and what looks like a dialysis machine made from Tinkertoy, you quickly realize you have no real need to ever print real-world objects in three dimensions. But the fact that MakerBot Industries has taken a process that used to require a machine worth $10,000 or more and put it within reach of mere mortals for the paltry sum of $1,225 USD, is nonetheless remarkable and could have a profound effect on the next generation of engineers who – no longer limited by parts they buy from retailers – can pretty much build anything they can dream up inside a CAD program. So long as they can limit their dreams to 996mm x 108mm x 115 mm – that being the width, length and height maximums of the Thing-o-Matic’s build area. I say let the printing begin, and if anyone can fashion me a new rotor for my Air Hogs Sky Patrol, I would be grateful.
3D permeated every inch of the Consumer Electronics Show this year – even more so than the two previous years. And while most manufacturers concentrated on showing off the 3D tech that consumers could expect to see at retailers this year, a few were demo’ing future technologies that aren’t quite ready for the market. The most widely anticipated of these was glassless 3D – typically achieved with lenticular screens that produced a focused 3D effect within a very narrow field of view and distance from the screen. Sony had some very good examples of that technology. But more impressive from my point of view was a headset-gadget that Sony doesn’t even have a name for yet – although I’ve found at least one journalist referring to it as the “Headman” (terrible name). It’s white, looks like something out of the movie TRON: Legacy and provides the most convincing 3D I’ve ever seen.
The apparatus contains two OLED displays, which are mounted on adjustable sliders so they can be correctly positioned for the width between your pupils. There are also stereo headphones located in the ear-cup area. Sony was running some 3D loops from PS3 games such as GT5 and it was mesmerizing. Unlike any other 3D display I’ve seen so far, the effect was perfect – I felt as though I was standing at the edge of the racetrack with the cars whipping by just a few feet away.
However given the lacklustre consumer response to other head-mounted viewing systems like Vuzix, I’m not sure that even if Sony launched this product tomorrow it would find a wide audience. The device will appeal mostly to hardcore gamers – those who spend a lot of money building a PC rig that gives them every advantage during online gameplay. I suspect casual gamers and 3D movie fans will avoid it in favour of big-screen systems that let them share the experience with others in the room.
Readers, what do you think – does a highly personalized 3D system like this interest you?
Pocketable camcorders have been selling like hotcakes ever since Flip Video (now owned by Cisco) popularized the category a few years ago with their original Flip. Since then, we’ve seen incremental upgrades and a whole lot of new players including Kodak, Creative Labs and of course, Sony. The feature sets continue to grow and now include 1080p HD recording, expandable memory, HDMI output and even optical image stabilization. But until this past week at CES, 3D was still an item on the to-do list. Now with Sony’s new Bloggie 3D (yeah, we’re not crazy about that name either) consumers can cram a Full HD camcorder in their pocket that not only shoots 3D if you want, but can also show you your recorded footage in glasses-free 3D using the built-in LCD monitor. Of course if you own a 3D TV you can watch it on that too ;-)
One fact that we failed to mention in the video below is that you can choose to upload your 3D videos to YouTube in “anaglyph” format – that’s the old-fashioned red & blue version of 3D. It doesn’t look as good as the modern version, but since you can find the Anaglyph glasses almost anywhere for pennies, your audience is guaranteed to be able to see your 3D footage in well, 3D. Even if it does end up looking like a cheezy 3D movie from the 50’s.
CES 2011 is in some ways no different than in previous years: massive. The sheer number of companies exhibiting their products is overwhelming. But that’s CES and I wasn’t expecting anything different. What has come as a bit of a surprise is the number of attendees. The show is jam-packed with people milling around the show floor and making it nearly impossible to navigate some of the larger and especially flashy booths like LG’s behemoth which I suspect is consuming more power right now than the entire Las Vegas Strip – it has hundreds of TV screens of every shape and size imaginable.
This attendance level would seem to indicate that while the U.S. is still trying to pull itself out of a lengthy recession, worldwide interest in consumer electronics is hitting a feverish pitch which hasn’t been seen in the last four years, possibly longer.
Full Article below the Photo Gallery…
So what’s driving this curiosity? Strangely nothing ground-breaking or hugely innovative. Instead it appears that the industry has decided to hunker down and work on improving two categories that have been around for a few years: 3D and smartphones, while at the same time aggressively playing catch-up to the unprecedented success of Apple’s iPad in the tablet space.
3D, which made a big splash at CES two years ago, and then affirmed its presence last year with more products, is now pretty much everywhere. Every major manufacturer (and most minor ones) now have 3D HDTVs in their lineups and the focus is now on differentiation.
What started out as a single approach to in-home 3D – that being the use of “active shutter” glasses – has now fragmented into at least 3 techniques: the “active” approach, still being pushed aggressively by Panasonic and Sony, the “passive” approach which uses the same polarized technique employed in movie theatres, and a third – glass-less 3D which allows viewers to see the 3D effect with their naked eyes.
While the glass-less or glasses-free TV technology isn’t being scheduled for release just yet, it is maturing rapidly and is already slated to appear later this year in Nintendo’s handheld gaming device the 3DS. The “passive” technology however will be hitting store shelves this year and I strongly suspect will win over consumers who have been hesitant about making the 3D plunge. The passive glasses are so inexpensive they can be considered disposable, there’s no limit to how many people can watch simultaneously, and it’s inherently flicker-free and perceptually brighter than the active shutter displays. The only catch might be the price of the TVs. At least initially, the polarized TV screens might be more expensive than the non-polarized type.
Will passive win out over active as the true single-standard? It’s far too early to tell, especially since consumer appetite for 3D remains suppressed due to our still-struggling economies, a lack of library-depth in 3D titles and an unwillingness to spend a lot of money buying new technology when many people recently upgraded to HDTV within the last year or two.
On the smartphone front, “4G” and Android are the dominant buzzwords. The 4G label is being pushed around a lot down here in the U.S. and I think it’s creating a lot of confusion for consumers both north and south of the border.
What is 4G exactly? Well according to a strict definition as cited by Wikipedia, it’s a mobility standard that doesn’t exist commercially yet with any provider as 4G requires “Peak data rates of up to approximately 100 Mbit/s for high mobility such as mobile access and up to approximately 1 Gbit/s for low mobility”. The fastest mobile devices at the moment are capable of up to 21 Mbps – a far cry from the 100 cited in the 4G standard.
So why are the U.S. carriers crowing about “4G”? It’s a marketing game. What they’re really referring to is the HSPA+ communication standard – the one that can deliver up to 56Mbps (but is currently running at up to 21Mbps in most countries) and is probably better labeled as “3.5G” since it is an upgrade of the slower HSPA standard (up to 14 Mbps) which along with EVDO was the original “3G” standard.
I guess these companies needed a way to tell people that they were getting something significantly better with HSPA+ than they were getting with HSPA, and probably felt that saying 3.5G just wasn’t going cut it. So they skipped it altogether and adopted 4G. For a good explanation of the current mobile landscape in the U.S. see CNET’s article on the issue. In the Canadian market you probably won’t hear the 4G term used at all. That’s because the major national mobile carriers are already operating HSPA+ and are thankfully resisting the incorrect 4G label. But naturally the power of U.S. marketing will leave some thinking that our American cousins are enjoying something that we can’t get. Rest assured, it ain’t so. So while Motorola’s new ATRIX will likely bear the 4G moniker in the U.S., the very same phone up here will simply be called the ATRIX – no other letters or numbers needed.
Finally, there are really more tablets here at the show than I can effectively discuss in this post, but I will be dedicating a separate post cover just these devices. Everyone it seems now has, or has plans for, an Android-powered tablet of some description, with many companies trying out several different sizes simultaneously. Most of these were anticipated, such as Motorola, RIM, LG etc, but some have been a surprise like Panasonic’s line of VIERA tablets which seem to be designed more as a complement to their TVs than as iPad competitors.
Stay tuned… more (much more) – and videos, to come…