Move toward 3D TV is complex, controversial


On July 11, a few thousand U.S. households were treated to a unique television milestone: They watched the World Cup soccer final between Spain and Germany in 3D. The households shared a few things in common: They were DirecTV subscribers, owned a 3D-capable TV set and were tuned to ESPN's 3D channel using an HD receiver. And they were wearing special battery-operated glasses designed for their TV set model.

So is 3D television all about manifest destiny, or are those pesky glasses just something else to lose between the sofa cushions?

Welcome to the brave new world of television, where professionals and consumers alike are having to learn a whole new set of rules and even terminology, like dynamic variable interaxial spacing (especially important in covering live sports; the distance between the two camera lenses has to change depending on whether the action is close to the camera or far away).

Despite a grinding worldwide economic recession, or maybe because of it, manufacturers desperate to jump-start sales of high-end big-screen displays have been making a major push on 3D, despite a paucity of content, replete with a national ad campaign.

A Netflix query for "3D" returned only 14 titles, the most notable of which were "Saw VII," "Piranha" and "Spy Kids." A search on Amazon for "3D Blu-ray" turned up another dozen titles, mostly animated. The only source of regularly scheduled content are three channels on DirecTV, though one of those is a PPV offering at a $1-per-movie premium over 2D fare.

A lot more 3D content is in the offing, however.

Discovery Channel has a 3D channel planned, as do the pay services as more movies enter their pay TV window. Sony debuted several 3D video games during the recent E3 trade show in Los Angeles. Comcast is actively looking to add 3D content to its VOD offerings. ESPN is promising a minimum of 85 live sporting events in 3D during the first year on its dedicated channel.

Given the boxoffice success of "Avatar," it is likely that most studio tentpoles will be shot in 3D from now on.

The question for TV is a lot more complex and controversial. As equipment costs come down and behind-the-camera expertise goes up, it is likely more TV shows will be at least mastered in 3D to enhance syndication longevity and value. Skeptics -- and there are plenty -- maintain that as long as 3D TV viewers must wear special glasses to watch content, market penetration will be slow, though at least one market forecaster, DisplaySearch, has raised its estimate of worldwide 3D TV shipments since its first forecast at CES in January.

The need to wear glasses to watch 3D TV means viewers likely will use them primarily for sports, movies, special events (like concerts) and Discovery Channel-style programming. The cost of 3D TV glasses also will remain a major drag on adoption rates until prices come down dramatically from the current $150-per-pair level.

There are several dark-horse candidates that might accelerate 3D adoption.

A major 3D video game hit could be one driver. Another is a new generation of consumer 3D video cameras, which also will jump-start 3D-capable laptops and personal computers as many of those productions will wind up on YouTube.

The other is the fact that broadband will play a major role in delivery of 3D video content, and many of the 3D TV sets have Internet connectivity. Music videos shot in 3D also could mark a comeback for that content genre.

And one can bet that Microsoft, Apple, Intel and Google have 3D baked into their product plans. Designer 3D glasses are just around the corner.

Larry Gerbrandt, a media analyst for more than 25 years with such companies as Kagan and Nielsen, is a principal at Media Valuation Partners, which provides strategic consulting, research, valuation and expert-witness services. He can be reached at larry@mediavaluation.com.
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