3DTV Is Coming! No, Really — Here’s Why

3DTV is poised to emerge from your HDTV and jump right into your living room. The technology is in place, from the cameras used to capture the content, to the post-production tools and services available to handle the encoding of depth data into the digital image stream, to distribution channels including physical media and broadcast streams, and even to the consumer electronics required to view 3DTV at home.

The demand for 3DTV is clear. One needs only look at the millions of dollars spent at the local cinema box offices by consumers willing to pay a premium to see a movie in 3-D. Much of the movie content has been animated — in large part because it’s easier to create and produce 3-D versions — which, in turn, means that they have been targeted at family audiences for the most part. An entire generation is growing up with the expectation that movies should be in 3-D, and if that’s the case, then why shouldn’t they get the same experience at home? Unlike the difference between standard definition (such as DVDs) and high definition (such as Blu-ray) that can be too subtle for some consumers to appreciate, there’s no mistaking the impact of 3-D on the viewing experience.

While a number of different technologies are competing at the HDTV level, it is clear at this point that the winning combination is a fairly typical flat-screen HDTV with “active” glasses. The advantage of this approach is that the 3-D capable HDTV is likely to cost little or no more than an identical set without the 3-D support. This will reduce any consumer price resistance, speeding adoption. The extra cost only comes when consumers want to take advantage of the feature, at which point they can pay the extra for the required glasses. (And third-party competition is likely to help drive those costs down rapidly.) The situation is analogous to that of sound in today’s HDTVs; almost all have a simple stereo speaker configuration, but their circuitry supports 5.1 surround sound at no additional cost. You simply need to buy a home theater sound system in order to take advantage of the extended capability.

So why don’t we have 3DTV in every living room yet? The biggest bottleneck is content. Hollywood understands the favorable economics, and at present the studios are planning at least 15 major motion pictures in 3-D a year. That’s a significant portion of the movie industry output, but it pales compared with the combined content demand on a typical cable or satellite TV subscription service. Fortunately, a number of companies have developed ways to infer depth information from 2D content, which could open up the vast catalog of older movies and television programs to presentation in 3-D versions.

Panasonic and Sony have already announced plans to make a major push for 3DTV products in 2010, including HDTVs and 3-D capable Blu-ray players. As with so many technology advances in the past, however, hardware is likely to lead software. We had USB ports on personal computers for years before the software caught up enough to make them reliable and versatile features. By the same token, we are not likely to find appreciable amounts of 3-D content available from broadcast or recorded sources until about 2012. At that point, we expect to see more consumers expressing interest in the feature and starting to buy the 3-D capable hardware. This will accelerate, making it practical to move beyond the experimental stage for live broadcast program content, such as sports events that have traditionally driven home entertainment technology change.

If it rapidly becomes a standard feature that does not come at an added premium price, worldwide sales of 3-D capable HDTVs should reach 46 million units in 2013, or a bit more than 20 percent. Three out of four of these will be 30 inches or larger, as the 3-D experience is more effective on larger screens. If manufacturers manage to maintain a price premium for 3-D support, adoption will be slower, reaching 28 million units worldwide in 2013.

So while we have a few years to wait before 3DTV becomes a part of the mainstream HDTV experience, the initial momentum is already apparent. It is simply a matter of waiting for the content to whet consumers’ appetite for a richer viewing environment, where they can get the same benefits that they have come to expect at the local cinema, but in the comfort of their own home.

Alfred Poor is editor and publisher of the HDTV Almanac and a member of the GigaOM Analyst Network. His complete discussion of this topic is available in the latest GigaOM Pro report, “3DTV Market Analysis: The Transition from Cinema to Living Room” (subscription required).