After nearly six decades -- and numerous fits and starts -- 3D appears to have finally established a tenuous foothold in theaters, with nearly 4,500 screens converted to the format to date and many more to come by the end of the year.
As for 3D infiltrating the living room, too? We’re betting our flat screens that’s a bridge too far.
You’d think that with all the trouble they had over the last decade just getting HD into the majority of American homes, the major consumer electronics brands, cable companies and movie studios would wait a bit before charging headlong into 3D. You know, just to be double-sure that this latest flurry of interest in 3D isn’t just a fad.
But they made it doubly clear at National Association of Broadcasters conference this week: “We’re going for it anyway.”
Here's why the odds of successful mass adoption of 3D in the home, at least in the short term, are long:
1. It took forever for HDTV to get off the ground. Now this?
After Panasonic and Philips became the first to introduce high-definition TV sets back in 1998, it took another five years for an HD channel to launch. (That was ESPN -- always on the leading edge of broadcast technology.)
It would take nearly a decade for the wide-scale deployment of hi-def. That includes flat screens and a serious selection of HD channels. And that said, Blu-ray -- still only about 12 percent of disc sales -- remains well below where its developers originally thought they’d be at this point.
It is true that the operatives behind 3D TV are moving at a much faster pace than they were for HDTV.
“I’ve seen the world’s finest 3D content at NAB, from the stuff that’s headed to ESPN to things like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that are going to be on Blu-ray,” noted consumer electronics analyst Richard Doherty told TheWrap. “The content is noticeably better than it was at (January’s Consumer Electronics Show). “It’s taken a real big step in just 98 days. HDTV never moved that fast.”
Indeed, one month after the first 3D sets hit shores, there's already a packaged media format available: At $2,900, Panasonic's Viera-model 50-inch plasma TV comes with a 3D-ready Blu-ray player, a 3D copy of Fox's "Ice Age 3" and a pair of 3D glasses. And they're already sold out.
ESPN has a dedicated channel launching in June, with another channel jointly established by Sony, IMAX and Discovery coming next year. DirecTV has also announced a dedicated 3D offering, as has Europe's Sky.
But a small handful of channels in two years is heardly enough. And not only will more dedicated channels be needed, but many more cable and satellite boxes will have to be developed.
It makes the shortage of 3D screens in theaters look like only a slight bump in the road.
In short, companies like ESPN, DreamWorks and Sony might be betting billions of dollars, but many other cable channel operators, and cable and satellite set-top box suppliers, are going to have to ante in before this thing can be declared working. That's a long way away.
2. Did you notice we said $2,900?
And did you notice we said one pair of glasses?
Additional pairs? That'll be $150 each. And you thought paying an additional $3 at the movie theater was bad.
Then there are the discs themselves. No prices have been set, but you can be sure even the pricy Blu-rays -- which themselves have encountered resistance in the marketplace -- will pale by comparison.
Of course, as Doherty says, "Even in a bad ecomony, there are plenty of people whizzing past you in a Lexus or Mercedes. There's always 3-5 percent of the population that's economy proof, and if you ask the consumer electronics makers, that’ll be enough. If they can get 3-5 percent of the U.S. market in the next 12 months, they’ll all be smiling.”
But in order to entice companies like ESPN to keep shooting games in the expensive 3D format, and to get cable and satellite companies to play along, it's going to take a lot more than 5 percent of the market.
3. The push to 3D isn't really about us, it's about them.
There's a reason the big consumer electronics brands are pushing 3D. They've watched the price point on flat-panel HD sets whittle to next to nothing -- and 3D represents an up-sell that can once again raise their stickers back into the four-figure range.
“Those guys really want to keep their margins up -- and certainly HDTVs and internet-enabled TVs aren’t going to be enough to make the big TV-makers happy," Doherty noted. "They’ve chosen a new battleground, and that’s 3D TV.”
But a large portion of the TV market was only recently turned over, with a lot consumers ditching perfectly good 150-pound CRT monitors to make way for $1,000-plus LCD flat screens. Are they once again going to willingly ditch perfectly good legacy equipment in favor of $2,000-$3,000 3D sets?
4. Multi-tasking TV watchers don't do funny glasses.
Beyond price considerations, cynicism also stems from emerging TV viewing habits.
Fox, for example, is among a number of studios that recently began integrating special features based on social media into its Blu-ray movies. The reason? People don't just sit around when they're watching "Avatar" at home; they multi-task.
“I don’t know about you, but when I play games or watch TV, I’ve got my phone, I’ve got all kinds of things going on,” said Aaron Greenberg, leader of Microsoft’s Xbox development team, at a recent gamer conference.
“I get up, I get down, I’m looking outside at the weather … I’m not in a dark theater, wearing glasses, staring at a screen. I think it’s just a different environment.”
And it's not just multi-taskers: Does the average American family really want to sit in their living rooms watching "American Idol" wearing dark glasses?
5. The living room is not a movie theater.
For multiple viewers to truly appreciate 3D TV, marketers say you'll want a TV set at least 50 inches in diagonal size.
"Sixty inches would probably be even better," Doherty said.
Perhaps coincidentally, part of the marketing spiel behind the HD DVD several years ago was that, to truly appreciate the Blu-ray-rival hi-def disc format, you needed to experience it on a TV set 50 inches or larger in size.
Of course, as we all now know, the best way these days to appreciate HD DVD is under your margarita glass.