Friday, January 7, 2011

3DTV Abandonment Issues (Don't Try This At Home!)

In February of 2008 the power supply in my eleven-year-old TV died, and I found myself in the market for a new set. At that time, both Samsung and Mitsubishi were quietly selling 3-D ready rear-projection TVs based on Texas Instruments' DLP chip, which worked by projecting alternating left and right frames at 120Hz. These TVs required that content be formatted into a checkerboard pattern of L-R-L-R pixels which would be separated inside the TV for the DLP's wobulating micro-mirror array to display. At the time, the only way to play this format of 3-D was via a computer connected to the TV's HDMI port, and using specialized 3-D playback software such as Peter Wimmer's Stereoscopic Player or DDD's TriDef player. The level of technical knowledge necessary to make this all work together put it out of the realm of the casual consumer. But I needed a new TV, I had the tech savvy to make it work, and I already had 25 pairs of active LCD shutterglasses that I scored on Ebay for $1 each (They were listed as “3-D glasses that don't work with Spy Kids”) So I bit the bullet and puchased a 56” Samsung.

Fast forward almost three years to the present, and nearly every major consumer electronics company is aggressively marketing a 3DTV. Most are LCD based, a few are plasma, and only Mitsubishi is still using the DLP technology. 3-D content is now available through satellite and cable TV, Blu-ray disc, streaming internet sites, and even game systems like the Sony Playstation3. This is great for those buying new TVs, as they can now easily waitch 3-D at home, but not so great for us early adopters as most, if not all of the new hardware offers no support for the checkerboard pattern required by the first generation "3-D ready” sets. (Panasonic actually does make one Blu-ray3D player with checkerboard output). In the current 3-D standard, broadcast content is delivered in either a side-by-side or over/under squeezed format (to be "frame-compatible" with current broadcast bandwidth limitations), and full HD Blu-ray3D is in a multi-view encoded file format. Neither of these formats are directly playable in 3-D on the older TVs.

So what is a DLP owner to do?

Fortunately, Mitsubishi decided to support their existing base of 3DTV users by releasing a converter box that translates the current 3-D formats into the older checkboard (Mitsubishi's new DLP TVs will have this function built in). Unfortunately, Samsung did not follow the same path. They no longer produce DLP-based TVs, and chose to abandon their existing customers by not offering any support to make their older sets work with today's devices. In addition, because the Mitsubishi converter reads the EDID identification code of the TV to which it's connected, and will only activate when connected to their own company's products, the Mitsubishi converter will not work on Samsung televisions. At least, it's not supposed to.

Some intensive internet searching turned up a potential solution. A discussion on the AV Science Forum website described a method to hack a Samsung TV so that it will work with the Mitsubishi converter box. It required jumping through some very technical hoops, and potentially turning the TV into a giant paperweight, so I proceeded with caution. I followed the online instructions – setting my TV into service mode, connecting my laptop PC to the HDMI port, and using a program called Powerstrip to write a new EDID code into the TVs memory. And it worked! Now, when I connect the converter box, the TV identifies itself as a Mitsubishi 3DTV, and the box goes into 3-D mode. For video playback, I'm using a device made by Western Digital, called the WDTV Live Media Player. This small box connects to my home network and also allows me to play files directly from flash drives, hard drives, and the internet. I am now able to watch my collected archive of 3-D video files and also stream 3-D video from Youtube, and everything looks fantastic - on my nearly-three-year-old, unsupported TV.

Of course, neither Samsung nor Mitsubishi endorse hacking your TV in this way. The consumer electronics companies would much rather sell you a brand-spanking new TV...and blu-ray player, and AV receiver, and proprietary glasses. Don't even get me started on the glasses...