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Let’s Get Real: Why The Reporting On 3D TV Is Mostly Hype

Sit through one too many CES keynotes, press conferences, or pitches, and you just might leave Las Vegas with the mistaken idea that 3DTV is going to be in all of our living rooms next year. ESPN (NYSE: DIS) and Discovery are committing to 3D cable and satellite channels, Sony (NYSE: SNE) is upgrading its PS3s to do 3D, and Taylor Swift’s live performance opening night at CES was shown live in 3D (You had to put the glasses on in order to see Swift in 3D when she was, actually, in 3D already, right in front of the audience.)

There is some reality in the 3D hype, but just some.

First, let’s compare 3D at CES this year to the previous years. From the current obsessive coverage, you’d think this was all new, but on some levels it’s not. For the last two years, we’ve watched 3D movies, played 3D games, and watched 3D sports at CES. The difference in 2010 is that we’re looking at commercially ready products. Between the major TV makers, there are at least 20 TVs on display here that we are promised will actually be sold around the world sometime this year. That is genuine progress. Plus, with Sony’s commitment to making the PS3 capable of playing Blu-ray discs, we actually have millions of US homes that would be able to show 3D content (although I can find only two Blu-ray 3D discs announced for 2010 so far, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the ghastly Jim Carrey version of A Christmas Carol). So it’s entirely real to suggest that by the end of this year, a few families will spend a few hours watching content in 3D.

But let’s get real: Not even a million U.S. homes will do this in 2010.

Reading some reports put out by the industry (see the 3-plus million estimate reported in this BBC piece from earlier today, for example), you might fall for the assertion that just because millions of people watched Avatar in 3D that they will all run right out and buy a $2,000 3D TV set. Here are the top three reality checks for 3D TV.

–Everybody just bought a new TV. Between 2007 and 2009, over 40 million HD TVs were sold in the U.S., most of them close to or below $1,000. In 2008, the hottest ticket was the 40-plus-inch TV set, because people like Vizio were selling them at Costco for $999. That means people who really love sports, movies and gaming already have a massive flat screen in their living rooms. Already in 2009, the best-selling units were not 40-plus inches, but smaller sets, destined for the bedroom or the den. Because the living room was already taken care of, at least in the homes most likely to care about video — the same homes likely to enjoy 3D. 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.

–The 3D experience is only good for a handful of viewing experiences. I had one reporter in the run up to CES seriously ask me how long it would take to see the evening news in 3D. I said, “hopefully that will never happen.” 3D viewing requires focused attention, and only a few people can do it at a time because the ideal 3D experience can only occur with a fairly direct view of the TV (don’t let TV makers kid you about viewing angles — you can see the 3D effect from an angle, but it’s distorted and not nearly worth sitting through a 2-hour movie for). Gaming is the ideal environment for 3D — gameheads stare straight at the screen in immersive gameplay for hours. That’s why gaming will lead in 3D. Sports content is the best broadcast content suited for 3D, and movies are next in line, probably delivered via Blu-ray for the next few years. Total hours a week you might want to watch in 3D? From two to five hours for most, up to 10 for a real serious gamer. That’s between 10% and 20% of viewing time, and that assumes that content is available, which it’s not. Would you be willing to spend the extra thousands in order to enhance 10% of your viewing time? Probably not.

–This requires a huge investment from the industry. You get the sense already that what we’re asking of consumers is a big deal. But it’s not just them. Yes, they have to buy a new TV, probably a new Blu-ray player (most Blu-ray players sold this past holiday season in the $100 to $200 range were not advanced enough to be firmware updated to conform to the new Blu-ray 3D spec), and they have to invest in 3D content sources (Blu-ray discs, new 3D games, and eventually, cable channels). But the industry has to make an even bigger investment. First more 3D content has to be created — that means new (expensive) cameras, new satellite uplink infrastructure for live sporting events, and an entirely new cable infrastructure to consume more bandwidth to deliver Full HD 3D content (where each eye sees a unique 1080p 3D image). And if you think consumers are reeling from the effects of a down economy, you don’t want to sit in that meeting where you explain to a fatigued cable network or cable operator that after just completing a massive transition to HD, they now have to go 3DHD. Ouch.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a sucker for immersive video experiences as the next guy. In fact, I’m the nerd who has been obsessing about the biology of the human visual apparatus for 15 years now. You have no idea just how powerful 3D is in the right setting (massive screen, accompanied by surround sound). It has the ability to overwhelm the mind and manipulate our physical reactions (galvanic skin response, heart rate, adrenaline release, pupil dilation, even hormone release) on a level that nothing else can. And we humans have shown that we like such vicarious stimulation — certainly it can’t be Avatar‘s original storyline that’s drawing us to spend so much money!

So I’m a believer in concept. I’m just realistic about how long it will take. 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. Which is an easy bet to make. The real trick is figuring out how long we languish in the low-single-digit millions. Is it three years or five? We have some advantage here in figuring this out, because we’re sitting on literally millions of consumer surveys that tracked the last 12 years of consumer tech adoption, including DVD, Blu-ray, HDTV, iPods, Kindles, iPhones, and every other big change that people have eventually adopted. We’ll add some survey work this year specifically on 3D and we’ll have an answer for you — one that accounts for consumer desire as well as consumer reality.

James McQuivey is a Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, where he serves Consumer Product Strategy professionals and contributes to the Forrester blog focused on that area.

This article originally appeared in Forrester Research.

17 Responses to “Let’s Get Real: Why The Reporting On 3D TV Is Mostly Hype”

  1. I love reading the nerd-jerk reaction to honest and open discussions about the viability of 3D TV adoption over the next few years. You can see the steam pouring out at the slightest hint of negativity because they’re SO desperate to see 3D, uh, NC-17 (?) “features”. You just know that’s the driving force! Anyway, Joe Average here to clear the air. First, we’re still in the middle of a recession/depression and heading towards a possible double-dip. The number of households with the necessary disposable income is TINY but nevertheless, they do have disposable income and they will likely give in the the hype. Second, spot on call in the article, we did just all buy 40″ HDTVs. I can tell you how many people I know personally who don’t actually scoff/laugh/fume at the idea of having to re-purchase new sets…ZERO! No one in the general public is going to buy more TVs, you can’t pay to have the old sets taken away! Last, the glasses. The stupid, stupid glasses. My wife and I both get headaches, mean ones, trying to stay with a 2 hour 3D movie and we’re not alone. I already wear glasses, I’m not going to spend 2-6 hours a DAY wearing a second set. Forget about it. Final Analysis, this will go the way of Atari really really really quickly. Lots of gamers will drop in, go blind and the industry will teeter towards oblivion. We’re simply not designed to watch 3D programming for long lengths of time. Watch for the Health and Safety warnings followed immediately by black labels on every set.

  2. Friese Greene

    Oh boy the 3D hype once again.

    Its really convenient for the entertainment industry that alot of people got an attention span of 5 seconds and suffer from long term memory loss … and of course the fact that 3D is oh so new to later generations, which is probably the main reason why it sells again every 20 – 30 years.

    We have got it in the 50s, partly in the 60s, the 80s, never sustained popularity and yeah here we go again. Not much has changed in this “technology” and its really more a gimmick than anything else.

    In 3 – 4 years nobody will remember. see ya in 2030 – 2040? :)

    btw swine-flu is big business too ….. 1976!

  3. enthus3d

    Very good point on the economics of TVs in 2008-09, but I think there is an angle you may be missing. There are people out there who buy the newest and best stuff, not only because they have the money, but because to impress their peers. You see this in everyday life with cars, houses, watches. Why couldn’t 3D TVs be a sign of economic status too? So I believe that it will take 4-7 years for 3D TVs to be as mainstream as LCD TVs.

    Nathan Richardson – Launched Today (at time of comment) Covering 3D and Emerging Tech

  4. An intelligent article, although I think you are making a mistake comparing the onset of HD with 3D. Most people are not videophiles, and to them the differences between VHS, TV, DVD and HD (certainly between DVD and Bluray) are not as dramatic. These are just quantitative steps, as opposed to going from 2D to 3D. And a typical person, not a videophile, will matter the most (and accelerate the general adoption faster than HD) after the early adopters are “done” (whenever that is).

  5. Again, more great comments, most of you seem to understand the complexity of the issue, though I have to say that some of you may want to re-read my post in its entirety to understand that I’m not against 3D. I’m simply saying it won’t reach more than a million homes in 2010. (By the way, a million is a lot in this business, other devices would kill to have reached a million in what is essentially their first year out — think DVR, MP3, etc.) I’m just working from pure logistics when I say that: the vast majority of 3DTVs at CES won’t be on the market until Q3. And even then, they will be in the most expensive TV sets available, further limiting their appeal. It’s just a fact that even though the 3D experience is pretty awesome, you can’t move it quickly against such logistical channel issues. Add to that the fact that there is very, very little 3D content available, and it’s really difficult to argue that 3D will have a big impact on 2010. As I suggested, the trickier question is how rapidly it will gain momentum beyond 2010: will it be 2011 or later?

  6. 3D is hyped at CES. That’s the purpose of the event. It’s about promoting and marketing the latest things. That’s the definition of the word.

    But hype doesn’t mean that there is nothing there as the author freely admits. People are responding to new display technologies like 3D as one would expect. But there’s a diffusion rate that will depend budgets, content availability and so on.

    Already today we see that digital theaters are realizing that they will soon be showing more than one 3D feature at a time so are looking at increasing the number of screens that are 3D capable.

    3D in the home is probably a novelty feature right now but as additional content and technologies get added to the mix (like Microsoft Natal, Canesta, new games and content) it will get more compelling for the consumer.

    The consumer has also shown that they can be pretty easily plied with some no interest/no payments to take something new even if it’s “early.”

  7. I agree that consumers won’t run out to replace large screen displays that they purchased recently. However, you seem to miss the fact that PCs can be upgraded to play 3D Blu-ray relatively easily. New notebook and desktop systems were on display everywhere at CES, with true 120 Hz displays and graphics cards capable of accelerated 3D Blu-ray decoding. 3D Blu-ray player software, such as Cyberlink PowerDVD, will be available when 3D Blu-ray titles are available later this year. 3D PCs provide additional benefits, such as 3D gaming. Just as PS3 systems provided a large installed base for Blu-ray disc, 3D PCs will provide a base of players for 3D Blu-ray.

  8. george1232

    I had a chance to experience 3D gaming at a small corporate event being held here in the city. At first, the simulated amounts of depth were somewhat mesmerizing, as particles scattered about on different planes. However, that feeling dissipated as I worked my way through each kiosk and the effect began to wear off. Once I became accustomed with the tech, it was a lot easier to dismiss it as the insignificant novelty that it is.

    Sure, amongst the buzz, 3D technology sounds like an excellent idea especially if you’ve never tried it firsthand. But I think a lot of folks are going to be let down after they shell out $3,000 for a decent-sized set that makes those effects apparent, only to later come down with a bout of buyer’s remorse.

    Personally, I’d rather see these efforts go towards something other than this Avatar 3D hype.

  9. If the electronics compaies want to get the end consumer into 3D and to think 3D is good … they’re going to have to (a) subsidise good 3D content (b) where the consumer wants it, which is probably YouTube or equivalent. Start their own “3Dtube” to showcase what it works for and unequivocally show why it’s a good idea. At present no-one knows because they haven’t experienced it and so they don’t miss it.

  10. You couldn’t be more wrong. Frankly I am tired of explaining my position to folks such as yourself, but you are entitled to an opinion. My opinion is completely contrary to yours. It is great to see you are a fan of S3DHD technology – but this is the beginning phases. There are PLENTY of early adopters for home theater. S3DHD will expand quickly enough. If you had only one or two companies making 3DTVs then I would say, ‘Hmmm, maybe he is right’. But no. PLENTY of manufacturers. In fact we just posted a new CES list of those manufacturers and their associated TVs on MarketSaw. Sony is betting the bank on S3D “end to end”. It will be hard to NOT find S3D in any of their offerings. I am talking commercial projectors, filmmaking, PlayStation3, S3DHD TVs, Blu-ray, etc. Have you even seen their new 3D focused website?

    You ARE right about Stereoscopic 3D gaming however. But that is a no-brainer. But to limit S3D to gaming? Way off.

    Interesting you are saying this while others are recoiling from their choice negative words about S3D in the theater. AVATAR is wiping the floor with those analysts and media. Nice to see there will always be folks who need to be swept up in the moment!

    We shall see what we shall see – you are only doing your job. Unfortunately (Fortunately for others) the Internet never forgets.

    Jim Dorey
    MarketSaw – 3D Movies, Gaming & Technology

  11. Great questions from everyone. Just a couple of points:

    Yes, you can get 3D DVDs and Blu-rays today, but they employ the old red and blue glasses, which wreaks havoc with the colors on the screen and only offers moderate 3D depth. The advantage of this is that the glasses are cheap and you can use your existing video equipment. The 3D we’re talking about at CES employs an active shutter technology, which means you’re wearing fancy eyeglasses (that seem like sunglasses) that actually alternately hide or reveal the left and right eyes 120 times a second, allowing the TV to show one image to your right eye and a separate image to the left eye. This means the TV has to rapidly cycle between each eye’s unique image, creating the 3D effect, while preserving natural color, though at the expense of image brightness (because technically, your eyes are covered half of each second, slightly darkening the image). To do that requires new Blu-ray discs that carry twice the data, new Blu-ray players that can decode that in real time and push it out to the TV in a new format, and new TVs that can display that image and control the glasses. The extra price just for the TV set (and 2 pairs of glasses) should be anywhere from $1000 to $2000 depending on the TV, though everyone is pretty mum about prices right now. I think they’re hoping the CES buzz will help them justify a more expensive price at launch.

    Let’s be honest: the 3D effect is awesome. The images are crisp, the 3D depth is remarkable, and if the image was properly shot and focused, it can be breathtaking. I personally sampled active shutter systems from Sony, Sharp, Panasonic, LG, and Samsung. They were almost all spectacular. In speaking with the CEO of Panasonic, he was so convinced that you have see it to believe it that he has sent 4 huge semi trucks with 152″ displays around the country to allow people in big cities to sample it. Watching documentaries is spellbinding, sports feel much more engrossing, and movies — well, you’ve all seen 3D movies before. So I think there’s a role for this technology, just not as quickly as everyone at CES hoped. Hence the post. Hope that helps.

  12. Chris Noland

    James,the funny thing is I don’t really understand the difference with 3D BD? Is this different than regular DVD (besides the higher resolution) I swear I have a few 3D DVD’s at home, journey to the center of the earth comes to mind. Now I have a DLP projector on a 110′ screen and if I recall it looked pretty good and have been wondering when I would see some of these titles in BDSo what limits coming out with a BD 3D title today? Is the disc not large enough with the extra detail or something else? I am trying to figure out the constraint, I understand the higher refresh rate TV’s would be necessary, but lost on the others.For Movies any film that is released in 3D I want to have it at home (i.e. Avatar) Any information you can share would be enlightening ThanksChris

  13. Michael

    I haven’t seen this tech, so can you tell me something about quality?
    Let’s say I put two sets side-by-side. One is a sharp, vivid flat panel LCD @ 120hz etcetera, and the other is a new 3d unit. Now I turn Monday night football in 3d and in normal HD. What will 3d actually add? Is the depth really significant for watching action down on the field? Do I lose any of the crisp HD picture details?

  14. Excellent summary of the state of the technology. I’m not sure that 3D is really going to take off. I can see widescreen, I can see HD, but 3D, to me, seems more appropriate for a large screen — as in movie theater. Plus, as you said, people have just now begun to move to HD, pushing something new on folks is going to create tech backlash.

    And, as you note, we’re not there yet. We had to go through two different dates, just to roll out digital signal in the States. And we had years to prepare people for this move. And gave away the converter boxes.

    Anyway, really nice check on the enthusiasm.

  15. But also watch the 3D production/post production space carefully too. Much like the HD space, once 3D production technology becomes, not only affordable, but intuitive and easily integrated with existing production and post production apps, you will see rapid increase in content. Having all the gear to view 3D means nothing if there’s nothing to view. Watch NAB 2010 this April, I’m sure you’ll see big leaps in 3D production technology that will enable the studios to really kick it into gear.