LAS VEGAS - This year, superficial was out at the nation's largest electronics gala. Every exhibitor at the International Consumer Electronics Show, it seemed, wanted to show some depth. Depth as in 3-D, that is.
Home theaters, webcams, live TV and even iPhone-sized screens: Nothing escaped the 3-D treatment.
"There's three or more times more 3-D than last year," said Richard Doherty, an analyst with Envisioneering Group.
But will consumers care? Three-dimensional movies have been around since the '50s, and now and then companies try to get people interested by broadening the use of the technology. This time, the breadth of the industry's push suggests 3-D has a chance of leaving the gimmick stage and entering the entertainment mainstream.
When it comes to home viewing, the technology has cleared an important technical hurdle. Flat-panel TVs now can switch between images so quickly that they can be used with glasses that let each eye see only every other image. That means different images can be presented to the right and left eyes, the key to achieving stereoscopic vision, or 3-D.
Panasonic Corp. demonstrated a plasma screen at CES that showed animated movies and Olympics footage in high-definition 3-D to viewers wearing battery-powered glasses that imperceptibly blacked out the view for each eye in an alternating fashion. Yoshi Yamada, head of Panasonic Corp.'s North American unit, called it "a phase change that will have a major impact on Panasonic's business."
The rest of the top four makers of TVs for the U.S. market - Samsung Electronics Co., Sony Corp. and LG Electronics Inc. - also had 3-D TVs at their booths.
The reason, Doherty said, is that the industry's drive to make larger and larger screens has run up against the limits of what people are willing to buy. To keep people interested in new TVs, the manufacturers need something else.
But all the 3-D TVs on displays were prototypes with no firm launch date. That's because there's a step missing in the 3-D formula. It's not hard to shoot in 3-D, and it's no longer hard to display it at home. But there is no widely accepted way to get the footage from the studio to the home. There are no 3-D discs and no 3-D broadcasts.
Panasonic wants to solve that problem this year by creating standards for both broadcasts and discs, probably with some variation of the high-definition Blu-ray disc. The goal is to get products on the market by next year, Yamada said.
That would require the cooperation of Hollywood studios, and it's not clear if they are on board.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., said the studio now makes all its movies in 3-D, and thinks that transition is as important as the one from black-and-white to color. But home viewing is not first on his mind.
Instead, 3-D "represents the opportunity to re-energize our audiences worldwide about the film medium, to give them a new, exciting, premium experience that can only be seen in the movie theaters," Katzenberg said.
To promote 3-D screenings of its next animated feature, "Monsters vs. Aliens," DreamWorks will be giving away 150 million 3-D glasses before it runs a 90-second ad at the Super Bowl. For a 3-D effect on unmodified TV sets, the glasses use an updated version of the old technique of using a red filter over one eye and a blue one over the other.
Glasses are still necessary for all the 3-D TV prototypes that were at CES. But 3M Co. and partner Toshiba Matsushita Display Technology Co., a leading maker of screens for cell phones and MP3 players, were showing off small screens that do not require glasses for a 3-D effect.
The key to the technology is a thin film made by 3M, the company behind Post-It notes and Scotch tape. The film beams light selectively to the right and left eyes of the viewer. The idea is similar to the old postcards that produced a 3-D effect by bending light with a thick, ribbed plastic covering. But 3M's new film goes inside the screen, and is invisible to the viewer. The 3-D effect can be turned off at the flick of a switch, leaving a display indistinguishable from the one on Apple Inc.'s iPhone.
The film will be on the market this year, said 3M senior technology manager William Bryan. If manufacturers are willing, that could mean 3-D phones by Christmas, but just as with 3-D TV, there's a chicken-and-egg problem with introducing small 3-D displays.
"The content. People haven't been willing to do a lot of content because there have been no displays," Bryan said.
The exception, however, is computer games. Most games already are rendered in three dimensions, so they'll appear in 3-D on the proper display. As a result, Andrew Fear, senior product manager at Nvidia Corp.'s 3-D business, said he expects games to "drive the 3-D industry."
Nvidia, one of the two leading makers of graphics chips for PCs and game consoles, showed off its new $199 Ge-Force 3D Vision glasses at CES. Used with compatible high-end LCD monitors, they make more than 350 existing games, such as "Spore" and the zombie-fighting game "Left 4 Dead," deepen into the screen. In modified games, like "World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King," objects even appear to pop out of the screen, so you can duck that sword.
The quirkiest 3-D product of the show was the $90 Minoru 3D webcam, which attaches to a PC. It has two lenses, spaced as if they were eyes. Software combines the images captured by the lenses and sends them through standard Web videoconferencing software like Skype and Windows Live Messenger.
The catch is that the viewer needs glasses of the old red-and-blue kind, so the person in front of the webcam will be in 3-D, but the wrong colors. Also, for a two-way 3-D chat, both participants need to wear colored glasses.
Clearly, some manufacturers will go to great lengths to provide a 3-D experience.
"I believe 3-D is the next big wave coming to the consumer electronics industry," said LG's chief technology officer, Woo Paik.