The missing dimension in 3D TV

Poster from the first widely-distributed 3D movie, Bwana Devil (1952).I risk being tagged a curmudgeon, but I'll say it anyway: 3D television isn't ready for prime time. It isn't ready for your living room, either (or any living room, frankly).

Headlines claiming 3D TV to be the greatest thing since the creation of 2D TV, are sadly more than a little hyperbolic, and I wish the industry would ease back on the PR push to get us to replace our still-new LCD and plasma televisions with 3D versions.

I know this comes as a bit of a disappointment for vendors like Samsung and Panasonic, which last week started selling 3D TVs through US retailers. But anyone who ponies up a triple-digit price premium for the right to wear goofy, overpriced glasses to watch content that doesn't exist yet and can't be broadcast over conventional distribution channels is, to put it gently, gullible.

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Someday isn't here yet

Samsung, Panasonic, and other television vendors have been working themselves into a tizzy over 3D TV ever since this year's Consumer Electronics Show, where 3D TV was the darling. Unfortunately, they're all in for a very hard lesson. Despite the headlines, breathless press releases, and similarly breathless product reviews, 3D TV has no immediate future in the living room. That may very well change, someday, but it'll take a whole lot of evolution -- in technology, content and marketing -- before 3D makes the mainstream leap from movie theaters to living rooms. Here's why:

  • No content. While a growing percentage of top-grossing movies over the past couple of years have been 3D, the vast majority of movies and virtually all televised content remain conventional 2D. While Avatar has used breakthrough 3D cinematography to become the most successful movie of all time, it's an exception to the rule. How many other movies really need the full-on 3D treatment?
  • No distribution. If you want to watch a 3D movie, you're buying or renting a 3D Blu-ray disc. Current-generation cable or satellite-based distribution simply can't support the bandwidth required by a 3D broadcast. Will this change someday? Certainly, and for DirecTV customers, who may have access to a grand total of three 3D channels by June, soon. But for the rest of us, the best you can hope for is a half-resolution 3D signal from your television provider. And don't be surprised if you're charged a premium even for that half-baked "solution." Either way, if you do the math, your fancy new screen will be yesterday's news by the time the majority of distributors get with the 3D program...assuming they ever do.
  • No affordability. Every new technology carries a significant premium, and 3D screens are no different. Samsung's $2,899 package for a 46-inch screen, two sets of glasses, and a Blu-ray player seems rich in a world awash with sub-$1,000 sets. Want more glasses? They're $250 a pop, a figure which will be inscribed into your brain the moment you discover your five-year-old has left them on the living room floor just as the dog sniffed around for something new to chew. Economies of scale will, as they always eventually do, bring prices down. But do you really want to wear special glasses every time you watch television? As technology advances and potentially (or hopefully) makes glasses unnecessary, will your expensive new acquisition even be compatible? Don't count on it.
  • No relevance. 3D has been around in one form or another for decades. It's had more just-about-finally-almost-here moments than any technology deserves to have. Despite the fact that it's finally moving past its cheesy/campy movie past and becoming an accepted cinematographic tool, television is an entirely different ballgame. We don't watch TV like we watch movies. The typical TV viewing session isn't an event. Watching the local news, Stephen Colbert, or the mercifully last few episodes of Lost will never qualify as events, either. And I don't want to see my local weather dude in 3D any more than I want to feel as if I can touch Mr. Colbert as he faux-grills his guests. Although 3D adds some value to some admittedly limited forms of entertainment (such as movies), it adds patently none to the vast majority of today's televised content.

I understand the full-court press to move us all into 3D TV. Manufacturers are hurting. After spending most of the decade coaxing us out of our now all-but-gone CRT-based televisions and into bigger, flashier and, yes, more expensive LCD and plasma flat panels, they sat quietly by as we hunkered down though the recession. Now they want -- nay, need -- for us to have an entirely new reason to buy new stuff. There's always got to be a reason to drive the consumer need to replace things before their time. And if this year's reason doesn't take off, watch for next year's CES to carry an entirely different theme.

When my Betanews colleague Tim Conneally called it kids-stuff in an article last week, he was uncomfortably (for vendors) close to the truth. For all the novelty value of watching a 3D movie on a properly equipped home theatre, the realities of content and economics mean it'll be a long time before any of this is as routinely workable as regular old 2D HDTV is today.

Dreams don't always come true

In the ideal world, vendors announcing products based on radically new technologies would be greeted by thunderous applause and near-universal approval from rapturous consumers eager to spend whatever it takes to remain current. In the real world, however, announcements are rarely met with such unmitigated adulation. Buyers who have seen and heard it all before are growing tired of overly optimistic vendor claims, and are rightfully challenging them. In many cases, they're simply ignoring them outright.

That seems to be happening in my immediate circle of friends and colleagues, where no one has any plans to replace their current equipment with 3D anytime soon. Their universal conclusion -- which I share -- is it's too early, and too many additional pieces have to come into play before it becomes a reasonable and reasonably affordable choice for consumers. As hard as vendors have decided to push their 3D wares in 2010, they're dreaming in three-dimensional Technicolor if they think this is the year the mass television market moves beyond two dimensions.


Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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