12 July 2010

3D TV is Not Coming Anytime Soon

A few days ago, Ubisoft made a prediction that 3D TVs would be in every single home in the United States and people will rejoice. This is something the major players in the tech/media industry are all pushing for with advertising galore. Every advertising break during the world cup featured that damn Samsung ad.

Fact: People would like to watch TV without looking like Bono.
I'm not a fashion expert, so I'm not going to criticize what the glasses look like, but I will criticize the fact that you have to wear them. Well, not criticize so much as point out an obvious technical problem: Where are you going to put them? For years, Americans have struggled with the ideal place to put the remote. There has been ongoing, well-funded research on ideal locations for the remote and experts still furiously debate the subject. Hell, my father caved and bought one of these things so that he could never possibly lose it:
So where are we going to put our glasses? Unlike remotes, you have to have the glasses on to get any sort of viewing experience. Unlike remotes, if put them in the couch, you can scratch them and then you have to buy new ones. Unlike remotes, they do not have an established location in the sitting room because of a lack of research in ideal stupid glasses placement. Okay, that last one will heal with time, but that time factor works largely against the adoption rate (especially Ubisoft's vision of adoption rate).

So how do you deal without the glasses? Well, Microsoft has a pretty cool idea. The problem with their technology is that the system is limited to a certain number of viewers. Right now, one system can show 3D to only 2 people or 2D to 4 people. Ouch. Sure, the technology will only improve with time, but there will always be an absolute limit to that technology. Which means if you want to broadcast a 3D image to n people where n is very large, you're stuck with the glasses (for now).

Oh, except that even on the glasses-based TVs, you generally only get two pairs of the active shutter glasses with the set. Sure, you can go buy more. Newegg sells a pair of LG glasses for the low prices of $116. WHAT? Gulp.

Fact: People don't actually want this technology (yet?).

I have yet to talk to a person who really wants to have a 3D TV. Not buy one, but have one. If you are going to give them away, people will use them as your boring old 1080p 2D TVs. But don't take my empirical evidence for it -- survey says: the Japanese are 'not interested' in 3D TV: 67.4% of them said they did not intend to upgrade. If technophile Japan doesn't care, what hope is there for adoption in the United States?

Fact: The technology is wholly underwhelming.

My problem is that I have been seeing in 3D almost my entire life, which makes 3D TV not actually that impressive. The advertisements claim that it is more immersive, but at the end of the day you are still looking at a box with pretty lights. So when I see crap like this, which somehow implies that 3D TV looks more realistic than the real world, I can't help but shake my head.

If you want more immersion, give us sound, smells and sensations. I want the feelies! I was going to take this paragraph down a sarcastic path where I imply that it is not the content of the display but the induced sensations that really matter, but it turns out Aldous Huxley has already got that covered.

Fact: People do not consume TV in a way that works with 3D TV.

The demos at E3 all conveniently had people standing in front of the television, but have you ever seen a 3D TV from an angle? It looks like crap. Remember LCDs when they first came out? It is kind of like that, except not only are the colors completely wrong, the entire picture depth is thrown out of whack and you see it double again. It is even worse if you see the TV from an angle below (like if your TV is on a stand and you are sitting on the floor). People watch the news while making dinner. People have arranged their sitting rooms as a matter of looks, not as a matter of greatest TV viewing experience.

The industry seems to think we live in a world completely centered around watching television. A common example given is sports. Imagine if everybody watched sports in 3D, it would be like you are right there! says the industry. This through process is preposterous. Are you going to hand out 3D glasses for your next Super Bowl party? Will the bouncer at the sports bar be handing out glasses at the door? It's fine in theaters, because you are there to do one and only one thing: watch the movie.

And how does this hold up to the multitasking generation? We very rarely watch the TV without doing something else at the same time. Can you imagine the hell that would be if every one of your devices was 3D? What if they all used different technologies and required different glasses? Yikes.

Fact: People do not have extra money lying around to throw at this sort of crap.

In 2007, the 1080p revolution really started to take hold. Since then, over 40 million HDTVs have been sold. Even I am amazed at how good a plain-old DVD upscaled to 1080p looks. Sure, a broadcast at 1080i looks way better, but the upscaling algorithms look pretty damn nice. People are finally buying Blu-ray disc players and are amazed at the clarity.

Blu-ray is interesting because it is actually capable of playing 3D content, except the standard of encoding was only recently agreed upon, so not all players are actually capable of this. Luckily, Blu-ray players have the capability of being firmware patched to support the new standard. The problem is that upgradeable firmware is more expensive to produce, so many of the cheaper players cannot be upgraded. Oh, and the cheaper players are what most people bought. I would hate to be a customer support person fielding that call:
Customer: Yeah, I just bought Avatar in 3D and it is not playing 3D.
Support: What is the model number of your player?
Customer: The what?
etc, etc, etc.
Customer: What do you mean this version is not 3D capable? Avatar says that it will work in any blue ray player on the box!

Fact: 3D causes headaches.

I knew this from when I wore my first pair of active shutter glasses at a Samsung demonstration almost 4 years ago. Within about 15 seconds, I had to take the glasses off and get a drink of water. The technology has definitely gotten less headache-inducing, but I still cannot watch more than about 30 minutes of 3D without wanting to bash my own head in with the back of a claw hammer to relieve the pain (if you ever want to torture me, just strap me to a chair, tape open me glazzies and make me watch 3D films). It is definitely not a universal sentiment, but I am not the only one.

Gaming is going to be the field where 3D technology really takes off, which is why I have a vested interest in the topic. Most of the problems I have listed in this post go away with gaming, since gamers are always looking for immersion, are limited by the amount of controllers anyway, sit in front of the television and are not terribly chuffed about spending a little extra bit of money. Okay, so right now it is a lot of money, but the prices will drop soon enough. My only concern is how this is going to work with things like Kinect. Will your glasses fall off when you are moving around? Not a really big deal, though.

I realize that this is the way technology is moving, but give it at least 10 years (minimum) before we even near a halfway adoption rate. The uptake will be significantly slower than the HD revolution (the first HDTV was made in 1998), but it will come. Although I will say that gamers will be the first adopters, so I guess that makes Ubisoft sort of right.


  1. I think the biggest problem with this, like you mentioned, is adoption rate, and the fact that there is not a huge incentive to upgrade. Look how long it has taken people to upgrade from SD CRT televisions to HDTVs. Now that there is a wealth of HD programming available, they're becoming commonplace. If it took this long to just get people to jump from SD to HD (a huge improvement) it is going to take AT LEAST as long to go from 2D to 3D.

    A big deterrent in this switch is the cost-benefit analysis. Going from VHS to DVD was a no-brainer, the jump in quality is amazing. DVD to BR though, is not quite the same hurdle. For technophiles like us, we see the benefit of Blu-Ray and the like, but for the large majority of consumers, DVDs on their HDTV are "good enough". I still don't know that many people who own BR players (outside PS3s, and that's still not that many), and that technology has been out for a couple years now.

    I hesitate to call 3D television and movies as a "fad" at the risk of sounding like an IBM exec (The world will need "maybe 5 computers"), but it seems the added cost in both media and accessories, along with negligible increase viewing pleasure, will discourage 3D TV from ever taking a strong hold.

    Disclosure: I have not watched 3D TV or seen a 3D movie yet, but if I have to look like Bono, it's going to stay that way.

  2. There is also definitely a chicken and egg problem. Content providers can't sell 3D content until a reasonable amount of people have 3D TVs and there is no reason to buy a 3D TV unless there is 3D content to watch. And these TVs are in the $2000 to $5000 range, as opposed to the sub $1000 for a pretty nice 2D TV. Prices drop, but that takes a bit of time.

    3D TV is pretty cool, but not mind-blowingly so, which means very few people are going to drop two to five times as much on a 3D TV (because they'd rather spend that money to get a bigger 2D one).

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