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The future of 3D TV: Here's why it will succeed, despite hurdles

Consumer Reports News: April 29, 2010 12:18 PM

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Expensive 3D glasses may be a deterrent to
buying a 3D TV now, but CR's Jim Willcox
foresees a price drop in the near future.

Since I had to attend an event in New York City Tuesday when our latest 3D blog was posted, I decided to add my two cents to the conversation about whether 3D TV is a short-term fad.

I think those who believe that 3D isn’t going to succeed are being shortsighted. 3D will succeed, but it depends on your definition of success. Although some of the hyperbole surrounding the launch of these new 3D sets—such as Jeffrey Katzenberg’s comment that it’s analogous to the switch from black and white to color—tends to over-dramatize its impact, this time around 3D isn't a fad. In fact, it’s already in the mainstream, at least theatrically. So one traditional impediment, the lack of content, will slowly become less of an issue. Hollywood is clearly on board theatrically, so there’s a wealth of 3D content in the pipeline. From the packaged media standpoint, many new Blu-ray players are already equipped to handle 3D. Hollywood will be happy to once again sell you movies you already own in the 3D format, plus new ones making their way from theaters to the home. And I expect new 3D Blu-ray player prices to fall to the $200 to $250 range by the fall, hardly a imposing deterrent.

Distribution has traditionally been another issue, but the migration to digital—both in theaters and in the home—makes this a non-argument. Even legacy equipment, such as the settop boxes deployed by cable and satellite boxes, can handle 3D via firmware updates although there will in the short-term be a tradeoff in resolution in order to pump 3D within the TV frame-rates these older boxes can handle. Later this summer we’ll see if these so-called half-resolution formats—which really aren’t half resolution, as they only split either the vertical or horizontal resolution, not the entire signal—turn people off. My guess is that all but the hardcore videophiles will be happy with what they get. The one question is whether terrestrial broadcasts can handle the bandwidth required to transmit 3D over the air. I’ve heard they can’t, but there are other options for these “cable-never” households—IPTV over broadband being the most obvious one. In fact, Internet delivery of 3D content is still in its infancy, but it holds a lot of promise.

But the real reason why 3D will succeed is because really, it’s only a new TV feature, and one that is already priced for acceptance. Not even three months into 3D TV’s launch, you can buy a 46-inch 3D LCD TV for $1,500. A 50-inch major-brand plasma is priced at $1,800. In terms of new features, the premium for 3D is less than we saw with LED backlighting, which added about $1,000 to the cost of an LCD set when the first models were shipped. As a result, over the next 12 to 18 months we’ll see 3D become an included, differentiating feature first on almost all new step-up models, but then migrating to lower-priced mainstream lines. Two years from now, it will be like 120Hz technology in LCDs—all but the entry-level models will have it. So in essence, you’re going to get 3D whether you really want it or not, and savvy buyers will realize 3D will help future-proof their purchase even if initially they’re not so wowed by the technology or the amount of 3D programming available.

As far as hurdles, I think 3D glasses are probably the most formidable, as they’re off-putting to many consumers, for a few reasons. One, people don’t like having to wear them. But I believe that for the foreseeable future, those who own 3D TVs won’t watch 3D the majority of time. But during special-event viewing—a 3D movie, or a 3D sports broadcast, or a 3D live concert, for example—they’ll be happy to don the glasses for an hour or two in order to to participate in the experience. The cost of the glasses—currently $150 a pair—is also an obstacle, but this, after all, is the consumer electronics industry, so within a short time we’ll see basic models for $50 or so, and probably $500 Monster Cable versions with zircon-encrusted cables woven by unicorns.

Another issue—the lack of interoperability among brands, so that 3D glasses from one manufacturer won’t work with TVs from another—will also be short-lived, I believe. XpanD, which is the OEM for several brands, promises “universal” models by the end of the year, and I have heard of no technical reason why this can’t be accomplished. It’s possible that auto-stereoscopic 3D—meaning 3D without the glasses—is the real future, but we’re still a number of years from that becoming reality for TVs (it will likely arrive first in small handheld displays, notebook computers, and desktop monitors). But that really doesn’t affect the 3D ecosystem, just the display.

So, it’s my belief that 3D is here to stay. In the immediate future 3D will be used occasionally by the family, but as the content and broadcast infrastructures for 3D are developed, it’s not hard to envision watching most of the programming we receive in 3D, just as black-and-white programming gradually yielded to color, or silent movies morphed into talkies. Hey, maybe Katzenberg was onto something after all....

—James K. Willcox

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