(…and two reasons I might be wrong)
Since the Consumer Electronics Show back in January 2010 we’ve all been inundated with announcements suggesting 3D will quickly move from the cinema to our TV at home. 3D viewing isn’t new – stereoscopy was patented as early as 1838, and 3D has hyped time and time again, most notably in the 1950’s. The consumer electronics industry is trying to recreate the success of HD, now for 3D, based on the cinematic revival of 3D of recent years.
And indeed, since January, many 3D TVs were brought to market, TV networks and programs in 3D are about to be broadcast, and most notably, the world cup is now broadcast in 3D, and there’s still more to come. Some consider 3D much more important to consumers than the HD transition. So why, despite all these rosy predictions, do I believe that 3D TV will not take off nearly as quickly, if at all? Why am I betting against the experts on this one?
First, don’t get me wrong – I love 3D. I loved Avatar, and over the years, have seen a bunch of 3D movies. I’ll always prefer to watch a movie in 3D format if it exists. One of my favorites in 3D was an IMAX 3D version of Beowulf (if you get a chance to see it, do – it makes a pretty good movie so much better and is a great experience overall). Anyway, let’s go back to why I think 3D won’t be as successful in entering our home like HD did before it.
Well, there are two categories of reasons. The first category stems from basic differences between the “home environment” and the “cinema environment” where 3D is obviously successful. The second category includes other environmental factors that affect this technology adoption lifecycle.
Clearly the home environment itself is changing. Many people these days have dedicated areas for watching movies / playing console games – home theaters. A complete home theater, aside from a large TV display and a surround sound system, can become a dark environment isolated from the world, with comfortable chairs or sofas. Such an environment is almost perfect for 3D – so it’s not these environments that I consider different from the cinema environment. However, most TVs are not in such environments. In most cases, TVs are not in a home theater even if the display might be large and flat – it is a very different viewing environment than the cinema.
Here are the differences that I think will affect the success of 3D in the home:
- THE GLASSES – these are most likely going to be required for the 5-10 years for multiple viewers in the home. The way to avoid glasses would be to have a very limited “sweet spot” for viewing or extremely expensive screens. That’s why the Nintendo 3DS will be able to have 3D without glasses – small screen, small “sweet spot” (aka autostereoscopy) . But for TVs that would be viewed by more than one person in one location, glasses will be required, whether expensive active glasses, or inexpensive passive glasses (both would deliver reasonable 3D results). Why is this a problem? Well, in the cinema, you put glasses on for about 2 hours, then you take them off. At home, unless you are watching movies straight through, you will have to put on and take off glasses every time you begin watching. A bit of a drag.
- It gets worse – people often MULTI-TASK when watching TV. As opposed to the cinema, where they are mostly “committed” to watching a movie, at home, they “snack” on TV. They might watch a program, flip channels, use a smartphone, tablet, netbook, or laptop with them while they are watching TV. They may go back & forth between watching TV and other activities – either simultaneously or intermittently. All this is very inconvenient with 3D glasses on, and the experience isn’t the same. It just doesn’t work to put them on and off all the time.
- At home, there’s usually AMBIENT LIGHT – this is extremely distracting for 3D viewing. Hence, much less enjoyable.
- SITTING upright – have you ever watched TV lying down, at an angle with the TV, or in other ways, not looked at it when your eyes are perfectly horizontal? Well, with 3D, that wouldn’t work. Same for when you walk around to get some snacks or a cold one.
- DISTANCE to the TV – when the eyes watch things in the physical world, the focusing distance of the eyes changes depending on what they are viewing. However, when watching anything displayed on a screen, the eyes are focusing on a fixed object, the screen itself. This is less of a problem for 2D content. However, with 3D content, this is fooling the brain too much. It turns out that home environments cannot nearly recreate the comfortable viewing distance and immersive experience of the cinema, and it would mean discomfort for many people.
- VISION – About 5-10% of people will have permanent problems watching 3D, causing all sorts of discomforts. While in the cinematic experience, this might affect them alone, for a household, this might be reason enough not to get a 3D TV set.
The other issues mostly concern the technology adoption lifecycle:
- AGAIN? Haven’t we just purchased a new TV? Many people, and practically all early adopters and most early majority have already upgraded their TV sets to HD. This implies they have modern and relatively reliable TV sets that have a healthy lifespan of 5-10 years. They just made the investment in them. Almost everybody but the very early adopters will stick with these in a “wait and see” pattern before upgrading. Most TV purchases these days are powered by late majority of the population or second/third sets in the home. These will unlikely be the first to adopt 3D.
- Lack of COMPELLING EVENT – For HDTV, there was a compelling event, the United States was reclaiming analog spectrum and forced broadcasters to shut down analog broadcast, forcing everybody to buy a new TV or a converter box. What’s the compelling event for 3D TV? That’s right! There is none. Avatar and other great cinematic 3D experiences are not a compelling event for the home 3D – they’re a compelling event to get out of the home and into the cinema.
- COST – while a new 3D TV is not significantly more expensive than a non-3D HD model these days, the cost of the surrounding changes are. You might need a new game console, Blu-ray disc player, or set-top-box from your TV provider. You might need a new receiver to switch the HDMI 1.4a signal, you might need new HDMI 1.4a capable cabling, and you will certainly need glasses that are often at extra cost. Bottom line, it will cost you much more than the TV to get 3D.
- COMPLEXITY – setting up the home 3D environment is far from simple, especially if you already have an existing home theater system and other peripherals. This will be daunting for anybody except professional installers and cutting-edge early adopters/enthusiasts.
- STANDARDS still not perfect. It’s great that HDMI 1.4a is there, but that isn’t enough. There are still several different ways to broadcast 3D signals. Mind you, none of them are full HD (or even 1080i) for each eye. How the signal is packaged has impact on quality. All the relevant equipment in the home is affected by this – the TV, the receiver, the disc player, the game console, and the set-top-box. Therefore, if you buy something today, it may not work tomorrow… Yikes. Add to this that there are no standard glasses – Samsung glasses will not work with a Sony TV, for instance. This implies for active glasses (which are expected to be the overwhelming majority required), you will most certainly need to buy as many pairs of glasses as there are possible viewers…
- Lack of CONTENT – This is often cited as the leading Catch-22 reason. No content à no 3D TV sets get purchased. No 3D TVs get purchased à No content. The industry can create more content. Lots of movies, programs, and live events are being shot originally and edited in 3D these days – so more content and broadcasts will actually arrive. The real question here, is whether it will be enough to overcome all the other obstacles mentioned earlier?
Why it might work?
Here are two reasons I might be wrong:
- People get GENUINELY EXCITED about 3D. There’s a “wow” effect. Amazingly, even with the low-quality red/blue glasses you get people running around to get them in order to watch some popular TV programs that toys around with the concept. I see some going to great efforts to watch IMAX DVDs that have 3D viewing.
- Finally, really COMPELLING CONTENT – one “minor” thing might change the outcome of all of this. Supposing, for instance, top reality TV shows begin to be broadcast continuously in 3D. If, for instance, American Idol gets broadcast consistently in 3D (real 3D – not red/blue glasses), people might simply get sucked in, and go get a new 3D TV. If you saw a terrific U2 concert in 3D, you can imagine how nice American Idol might be in 3D…
These could be very important – people have this irrational tendency to go “ga ga” about 3D. When I told a few folks at dinner that I’m going to publish this blog post, they told me “What?! Are you crazy? Of course 3D is going to be successful!” They also said that if any more programming moves to 3D, they’ll run to replace their TV set at any cost.
As you can see, 3D TV might happen, but I’m betting against it – at least for now. It has quite a bit stacked up against it. Can the few “outs” it has and the will and power of the industry make it happen? Perhaps. But when I see analysts predicting between 31% and 39% of TVs sold in 2014 will be 3D TVs (that’s between 83 and 88 million units each year), I kinda think those numbers are at least two years later. I think it will be slower, quite a bit slower.
While most industry analysts predict 3D TV will take off, I can’t say I’m completely alone on this. For instance, Mike Elgan explains why 3D will fail in 2010 and Serdar Yegulalp also questions whether 3D TV is really ready. Both are excellent reads for those interested in more of the technical details and the historic evolution of 3D, which I have omitted. But we are now the outliers. Time will tell who is right on this one.
What do you think?