by Jeff Dunn
3D television was supposed to be the next big thing. Virtually every major brand had committed to the new technology around the time of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, with the likes of Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG, and others all excitedly hyping up what they saw as the next monumental shift in home theater and entertainment. After the record-setting success of James Cameron’s Avatar just a year prior, hopping on the 3D bandwagon seemed to only make sense. This was the future. It was supposed to be a slam dunk.
Then it wasn’t. Fast forward a couple of years and today 3D technology appears to be nothing more than an afterthought in the minds of most television consumers. In fact, a recent NPD study concluded that only 14 percent of interested buyers cited 3D as a ‘must have’ feature, while 68 percent merely found it ‘a nice feature to have that they may use in the future.’ And although the number of 3D TVs sold in the past year has risen, other reports have shown that, because 3D is becoming a just another feature of most mid-to-high-end sets by default, many consumers aren’t even aware they’re buying a 3D TV in the first place.
So what happened?
Well, a few things. For one, high production costs kept, and to some extent, have continued to keep, prices high enough to remain out of reach from the average consumer. There remains a sizable premium between regular 2D LED televisions and their closest 3D counterparts for most manufacturers, ranging anywhere from 30% with LG and Sony to 60% with Samsung and Toshiba. This means that your typical high quality 3D LED TV set is still upwards of $1300-1400.
Plasma 3D TVs fare better pricewise, with 42-inchers like LG’s 42PM4700 model now hovering under $600, but buying one of those means downgrading to a lower, 1024×768-resolution panel. For the niche market of technophiles that 3D TVs still appeal to most, such a sacrifice may not be acceptable. For newbies, spending that extra premium on a feature that’s still trying to get off its feet may not be worth it. Samsung has also been tipping its toes into the 3D LED TV market, but its models tend to run several hundred dollars more expensive.
And let’s not forget those pesky glasses necessary for the 3D viewing experience. Those will only run you around $15 or so for passive 3D sets, but can go anywhere from $25 to over $100 on their active 3D TV equivalents. Glasses-free sets like the Toshiba 55RZ1 exist, but are absurdly expensive (over $10,000), so it’ll likely be a few years before our dependence on glasses ends in the mainstream.
This brings us to the next of 3D TV’s woes: the continued lack of content. The total number of Blu-ray 3D titles is expected to hit 300 by next year, with content that’ll include a mix of blockbusters (The Amazing Spider-Man), award-winners (Hugo), and smaller-scale documentaries. It’s an okay bunch, and it’ll certainly grow as more feature films enter the third dimension, but it’s still miniscule and lacking when compared to the thousands of 2D Blu-rays (and DVDs) already out there.
Things get worse on the small screen, as there are still hardly any dedicated 3D TV channels available for everyone. Sports fans will love ESPN 3D, sure, but beyond that, most 3D networks are low in number, are specific to particular cable providers (Comcast’s Xfinity 3D, DirecTV’s 3net, etc.), and don’t offer high-quality, in-demand content. Thus, many buyers would still be buying a 3D television to watch primarily 2D content. Video games, often considered 3D’s ‘killer app,’ have had a mediocre transition to the feature too, although future big-name titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Assassin’s Creed 3 will sport 3D capability.
What we’re looking at is a classic chicken-and-egg scenario. 3D TVs need quality 3D content to foster growth, but 3D content needs a hungry, 3D TV-owning consumer base to provide it motivation. It’s a tough pickle to get out of, but one that could naturally resolve itself as more and more 3D TVs are bought, willingly or not.
There are other issues, such as the oft-heard reports of fatigue and discomfort from 3D viewers, but the core of 3D TV’s problems is something much more basic: it doesn’t always add much to the viewing experience. Fancy camera tricks and eye-popping explosions look cool, but when was the last time you felt you had to watch the morning news or something like, say, Downton Abbey in 3D? Now compare that to the number of times you’ve felt the opposite, and therein lies the dilemma. 3D TV doesn’t provide anything like the upgrade from SDTVs to HDTVs, to be sure.
It’s not all 3D doom and gloom, though. Prices, while still too high for comfort in many cases, are coming down, as profits from high-end 3D LED TV sales are wrung out and competition between manufacturers continues to increase. More and more people are buying 3D-capable sets too, regardless of whether or not the feature really matters to them. As that base grows, and as the technology of 3D TVs becomes more accommodating to users (namely, by subtracting the glasses), current 3D content providers can feel more assured that their efforts won’t go to waste. Potential 3D content providers could then jump in as well, and all this promising technology can get a healthy stable of products worthy of its capabilities.
For now, 3D TVs are here to stay, though they might not be quite the viewing revolution we were all promised.
Want to know more about the state of 3D? Check out additional reviews and articles in our 3D Special Report!