3D TV: Separating the hope from the hype

An industry groups expects 4.3 million 3D TVs to ship this year, but some others expect it to be far less

3D televisions were being hyped all over the show floor at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, with manufacturers gushing about an "Avatar effect" and hoping for a surge in high-end TV sales. But on the sidelines, even executives with a stake in the technology acknowledged there are big challenges to making 3D TV widespread in the home.

A relative dearth of content, the higher cost and complexity of 3D production, the fact that consumers will have to wear special glasses, and that millions of people have just shelled out for large HDTVs were all cited as factors that could make the technology slow to take off.

"If it took 10 years for HD to go from one home to reach more than half the U.S. population, it will take 3D just as long," Forrester analyst James McQuivey wrote in a blog post on the topic.

He expects less than a million U.S. households to be viewing 3D shows this year, far short of the Consumer Electronics Association's estimate that 4.3 million 3D-capable sets will ship in 2010.

That's not to say things aren't moving forward. Dozens of 3D TVs and Blu-ray players will go on sale this year. Broadcasters ESPN, Discovery and BSkyB have all announced plans to roll out 3D channels this year, and Hollywood studios have promised new and classic titles in 3D.

At a CES panel discussion that asked the question, "3D: Hope or hype?" Ahmad Ouri, chief marketing officer at Technicolor, said his company will release 16 features in 3D this year, adding to the 25 it already offers.

But with titles being counted in the tens rather than the thousands, it may not be enough to persuade large numbers of consumers to ditch their HDTVs for 3D.

ESPN has committed to showing 85 sporting events this year on its new channel, starting in June. It will carry only live events, however, and the rest of the time screens will "go black," said Anthony Bailey, ESPN vice president for emerging technology, which means there will be long stretches when there is nothing to see.

3D gear will also carry a price premium, though manufacturers haven't announced specifics yet. "It will not be a very high, astronomical price," was the best that Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, Panasonic's CTO, could manage.

"It's not going to be cheap. We are all in this to make money," said Brian Lenz, director of product design and TV product development at BSkyB. But it will not be "exorbitant," he added.

Most people who love sports, movies and gaming -- the content most suitable for 3D -- have just bought large HDTVs, Forrester's McQuivey said.

"Now we're going to ask those same people to spend between $2,000 and $4,000 to get a good 3D TV set with just two sets of active shutter glasses? Sorry, the credit card is going to stay in the wallet for this one," he wrote.

There are also technical challenges. Producing 3D requires "fundamentally new skills," Lenz said. "Things like panning and how you zoom and frame; there's going to be a fairly steep learning curve that everyone who's new to 3D is going to go through. So for all the excitement, expect some speed bumps in the road."

Like other broadcasters, ESPN's commitment to 3D will depend on finding a cost-effective way to produce it alongside 2D content.

"The biggest deal for us is to get 3D and 2D produced from the same truck. If we can't do that it might be a long putt for us to stay with it," Bailey said.

Lenz argued that the relative scarcity of content may actually be an advantage, because it will help ensure what's available is of high quality. "The idea isn't to watch every show in 3D, just the content that will benefit from it, such as movies, games and big sporting events."

"Once you see it, you get it," Panasonic's Tsuyuzaki promised. "It will take off a lot more quickly than a lot of people expect."

But there's consumer education to be done first. Some people are under the mistaken impression that they'll need special glasses to watch even 2D content on a 3D TV, said Rick Dean, chairman of the 3D Home Consortium. "There's every opportunity for massive confusion," he acknowledged.

"The biggest misconception is that this is our grandfather's 3D," added Lenz. "It's not 'Jaws' 3D, it's 'Avatar' 3D."

Consumers may also worry about standards, and whether they can mix equipment and services from multiple providers. Dean insisted it is "perfectly safe" to go out and buy 3D products now. The standard for 3D Blu-ray was finalized last month, he noted.

But no one on the panel offered an unequivocal guarantee that all products will work together equally well. Standards will "continue to evolve," Dean said, while Tsuyuzaki said that while all products will work together, there may be a "difference in quality."

One sure thing is that the electronics industry, reeling from a disastrous 2009, is determined to make 3D happen.

"We need top-line growth right now, we need something to kick us out of where we are today, and the thing that's going to get us there is 3D," Tsuyuzaki said.

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