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3-D TV from the Consumer Perspective

Enthusiasm for 3-D TV will build more slowly than consumer-electronics manufacturers would like, but consumers will eventually take it up in large numbers.

by Matthew Brennesholtz and Chris Chinnock

2010 has certainly been the year of 3-D TV. Starting with the mega-promotions and hype for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, the noise, products, and promotion have been continuous. But is the consumer listening? And, more importantly, is the consumer buying? In this article, we will explore these questions more deeply, but the quick answers are yes and somewhat.

First, let's put this current cycle of 3-D in perspective. 3-D has had several boom and bust cycles with consumers over the last 60 years, but it has never really taken hold. There are perhaps two fundamental reasons why 3-D has a better chance of sticking around this time:

• Digital technology: The creation of 3-D content using digital production allows for much better control of key 3-D experience parameters. Digital displays eliminate many synchronization problems and other issues, allowing for a more stable 3-D experience.

• Innovation: The pace of innovation and product introduction is very rapid today; new technologies are continuously entering the market in a bid to find the right combination of price and performance to allow 3-D to take hold.

Waves of Technology

Although Insight Media predicts that the outcome will be different for 3-D this time around, a number of years will still be required for this most recent 3-D vision to be realized.

We see 3-D TV coming in a series of waves:

• First Wave: LCD and PDP 3-D TVs based upon active-shutter glasses.

• Second Wave: LCD 3-D TVs and home-theater projectors using passive, mostly polarized, glasses.

• Third Wave: OLED 3-D TV and glasses-free 3-D TVs.These waves will overlap, with the first and second waves already a few years old, but are just now expanding into the mainstream consumer TV space. The first inklings of the third wave will arrive in 2011, but it will be years before these technologies form the basis of a more mainstream TV approach.

Although CRT-based 3-D TV had been around for many years, the first wave of modern 3-D TV actually started in about 2007, with the introduction of DLP-based 3-D-capable TV systems, as shown in Fig. 1.

 

Fig_1

Fig. 1: This 3-D-ready DLP TV was shown at CES in 2007. Image courtesy M. Brennesholtz.

 

Many of the 2 million or so people who bought TVs like this were not even aware the sets were 3-D capable. The first wave is now well under way, with shutter-glass offerings from all the major CE manufacturers. In addition, at the CEDIA Expo for residential electronics systems this year, there were a significant number of 3-D home-theater projectors that worked with passive glasses.

The first wave has also been greatly aided by the introduction of key standards, including a 3-D Blu-ray standard and the HDMI 1.4a interconnectivity standard. These standards are required not only for the first wave, but will carry forward into the second and third waves as well.

Second-wave-type 3-D TV systems with passive glasses have been offered in the past, but not at competitive prices. Real introduction of competitive products for these lines is expected in 2011.

Third-wave products have been demonstrated but not offered as consumer products. For example, Toshiba has demonstrated a 20-in. glasses-free TV and LG Display has shown 3-D OLED systems. Also, most 3-D OLED TVs demonstrated have required active glasses, although there have been demonstrations of micro-polarized 3-D OLED systems that use passive glasses. The consumer is not expected to take a step backward from passive to active glasses just to obtain an OLED TV.

While the first wave is well under way at the consumer level, competitive second-wave consumer products should be available in 2011. Competitive mass-market third-wave products are yet further in the future because there are still technology and manufacturing problems to be solved. Realistic consumer take-up of third-wave products is unlikely before the 2013–2015 timeframe. One barrier for consumer take-up of glasses-free 3-D technologies is likely to be the relatively poor performance of these systems when showing 2-D material. There are known technical solutions to this problem, such as switchable lenses, but they require additional development and cost reduction before they are ready for consumer prime time.

We see at least 20 years of innovation coming in the 3-D space, so defining success can be tricky. But success in any of the waves mentioned above will require the same key elements, as defined below:

• Education and promotion.

• A successful 3-D viewing experience.

• Acceptable price.

• Enough quality content.

Let's take a look at the state of these elements for the first wave, with some comments on impacts for the second wave.

Education and Promotion

There is certainly no lack of promotion with regard to 3-D TVs for the consumer. In fact, we are in a period of over-promotion, with 3-D TVs being pushed by the TV makers, retailers, and even to some extent by the content creation and delivery companies. In the short term, this is bound to be tempered as the realities of 3-D TV viewing become better understood by the consumer.

However, expect new waves of promotion and education as additional waves of 3-D technology enter the market. This also has the potential to create a group of very unhappy consumers – those who bought first-wave products with expensive active-shutter glasses may be a little upset when they discover that just 1 year later, they can buy a 3-D TV that uses passive polarized glasses for less than what they paid. This current generation of TVs with active glasses will not be convertible to passive glasses, so the buyer will be locked into an active-shutter glass "solution."

Nevertheless, the education and promotion of 3-D TVs by the manufacturers continue at a blistering pace. For industry professionals, there is a trade show nearly every week now that has some 3-D associated with it – a huge change from a year or two ago. 3-D film festivals, awards, and media coverage are blossoming worldwide. One can hardly look at a blog about television without reading about 3-D. Mainstream publications such as The New York Times have had multiple articles on different aspects of the arrival of 3-D TV. Industry-oriented press has published ample material on 3-D. Take as an example what is closest at hand: this issue ofInformation Display with a special focus on 3-D.

Some of the promotional events are for professionals and consumers alike. For example, the 3-D Experience event in New York City (see Fig. 2) in September of 2010 offered a consumer-oriented agenda that consisted of a variety of exhibits by various manufacturers.

 

Fig_2

Fig. 2: The 3-D Experience featured a variety of consumer-oriented 3-D exhibits from various manufacturers. It took place on 44th Street just off Times Square in New York City, in the Discovery Times Square Exposition space. Photo credit: 3-D Experience

 

This space is also currently hosting the King Tut Exhibit, so it is not a low-visibility venue. Other areas of Times Square that were part of the 3-D Experience included the NASDAQ market site and the AMC Empire 25 Theater on 42nd St. The Empire Theater not only hosted a day-long series of press briefings but also screened a number of 3-D movies over the three-day event.

In another example, Panasonic held a press conference on 3-D at the 2010 U.S. Open tennis championships, a sporting event that in some years has had the highest attendance of any event in the world. There was a demonstration room showing Panasonic 3-D products that was open to all attendees, not just the press. The authors can vouch for the fact that this demonstration area was full of curious consumers. In fact, there were so many consumers it was difficult talking to some of the people there. This is probably not a problem that Panasonic minded too much.

For retailers, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) organized "3-D Demo Days" on September 10–12, 2010. This event included participation by 65 electronics retail chains with stores in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada. "3-D Demo Days," not surprisingly, was designed to show the consumer what 3-D TV was like. During the event, ESPN showed the Ohio State vs. Miami game live, plus additional 3-D content including footage from the FIFA World Cup, X Games, and the Harlem Globetrotters. In a telephone interview with Insight Media's Art Berman, Megan Pollock of the CEA declared the event a "huge success," with "tons of customers" and "lots of buying."

And there are other resources out there for the consumer, such as the CEA FAQ file about 3-D that was part of 3-D Demo Days and is now on-line at http://digitaltips.org/ video/3-D-faq.asp. Amazon has a similar FAQ section, as do some of the TV makers and retailers. The industry-neutral 3-D@ Home Consortium is also developing consumer-oriented materials to educate and inform about 3-D.

However, even with this and all the other publicity 3-D TV has been receiving, sales have been sluggish and well behind the inflated expectations of the TV makers. In February, for example, Insight Media issued our "expected" 2010 worldwide forecast for 3-D TVs of about 3.3M units. While there was initial enthusiasm for 3-D TVs, interest has slowed, along with sales of any type of TV. We expect some serious pricing reductions to move TVs (2-D or 3-D) for the 2010 holiday selling season. Whether the market meets our 3.3M-unit forecast will depend on a number of factors, as detailed next.

The 3-D Viewing Experience

Many consumers have experienced 3-D in the cinema, and their impressions have generally been favorable. As we have seen, consumers are also being exposed to it at retail. But what about the 3-D TV viewing experience in the home? There are multiple elements that will help create an acceptable 3-D viewing experience in this venue, but these can be boiled down to two categories: ease of use and human factors.

Ease of use refers to how easy it is to access, display, and enjoy the 3-D content (we will deal with content availability later). If the content is Blu-ray, it does connect easily with the 3-D TV and it displays properly, but other sources of 3-D content are not as easy to access and display. This is likely a short-term problem, but will slow adoption. Perhaps the most important element in ease of use is the need to wear the active-shutter glasses. First, people do not want to wear glasses. Surveys have shown, however, that people who have actually seen content on a 3-D TV are more willing to wear glasses than people who have never seen 3-D TV. Maybe this suggests that the key for CE manufacturers and retailers is to get the consumer to watch 3-D TV for the first time. This first-time experience must, of course, be enjoyable for it to have the effect desired by the CE manufacturers and retailers. Information Display's Steve Atwood wonders about the occasional poor soul, such as himself, who does not enjoy 3-D outside the movie theater. He commented "I tried a number of glasses on at a major retailer recently. I was uncomfortable and even a bit queasy with several of them."

Also of concern is people's desire to multi-task while watching TV, something consumers will find difficult to do if they have to wear the glasses. Until glasses-free 3-D systems arrive, this will remain an issue. Even with glasses-free TV, viewers' head positions are restricted, limiting multitasking, so newer designs are likely needed to eliminate this issue.

Human factors refer to the impact 3-D content watching has on the human body and mind. It is well known that poor 3-D content can create headaches and nausea – something that rarely happens with 2-D content. It is vitally important that content creators understand how what they do will impact consumers and the 3-D viewing experience. It will take lots of training and time to help ensure that the content pipeline has content that is as good as it can be. Bad viewing experiences will occur, however, and this will slow adoption.

Content

Content is a persistent issue for 3-D TV. The shortage of 3-D content is one of the clear reasons why consumers are slow to buy 3-D TVs. The manufacturers have not made it any better by linking specific Blu-ray movies to specific brands. For example, Alice in Wonderland on 3-D Blu-ray is bundled with Sony systems and Monsters vs. Aliens on 3-D Blu-ray is bundled only with Samsung hardware. If you like Samsung hardware and you want to watch Alice in Wonderland in 3-D, you are out of luck for now.

This bundling issue is likely to resolve itself soon. Other problems with 3-D Blu-ray, such as difficulties related to re-mastering large-screen content for TV-sized screens and the authoring of 3-D Blu-ray discs, are expected to resolve themselves soon as well. Insight Media expects perhaps 20–30 3-D Blu-ray discs to be available at retail for unbundled purchase by the end of 2010.

Content issues are, in fact, more fundamental than the temporary issues associated with Blu-ray discs. 3-D content is available from satellite and cable providers, perhaps most notably DirecTV which is currently offering three channels of 3-D programming: movies, general content, and sports. The general content is sponsored by Panasonic and the sports are from ESPN sports. But even this content availability, plus other channels including the Internet, does not solve the fundamental problem: there just is not very much content. Most of what is on DirecTV and many of the other evolving 3-D delivery systems will feature mostly repeats of the same content. All of the 3-D content ever made could currently be seen in about 16 weeks of 6 hours per day of viewing – if the content was even available on that schedule. The pipeline has been created, but it will take years to fill.

On the other hand, the amount of content needed for 3-D TV is much less than is needed for 2-D TV. The authors believe 3-D TV viewing is likely to be event-driven, rather than the norm for TV viewing. Sports, movies, and special broadcasts will be in 3-D; the local news and most talk shows will not. The multi-tasking and head-tilt issues for the consumer and the bandwidth issue for the broadcaster have no obvious solutions, plus 3-D adds little to many types of programming. While the currently existing 3-D content is not sufficient for even this restricted viewing paradigm, the additional content in the pipeline may be enough.

More fundamentally, the creation of 3-D content is different from the creation of 2-D content. The shots, camera positions, use of pans and zooms, framing, and blocking – all need to be executed differently. These choices also impact human factors and the 3-D viewing experience. There is a rush now to fill the pipeline with 3-D content, but not all of it will be good – and consumers will realize this.

Price

The final issue is cost. 3-D TV sets are more expensive than 2-D TV systems, but the premium is part of a package that includes other high-end features. For example, a 50-in. 3-D plasma TV set, including two pairs of glasses, is currently available for about $1000. 3-D LCD TVs are somewhat more expensive, with 46-in. 3-D LCD TVs selling for about $1400, and 55-in. models for as low as $2300 for a bundle that includes four pairs of glasses and an Internet-enabled Blu-ray player. Comparison shopping is difficult, in part because every manufacturer or retailer offers a different bundle with TVs and other components.

Most of the 3-D TVs are premium products. So when consumers are shopping for a TV, 3-D capability appears to be only one of the items they consider. Internet connectivity, apps and widgets, LED backlighting, great 2-D picture quality, great motion response, thin form factor, styling, and other aspects are also just as important – and in many cases more important – to the consumer than the 3-D capability. The result is that consumers buy 3-D-capable TV for any or all of the above reasons. But just because they have a 3-D-capable TV does not mean they are watching 3-D content. They may be buying for the great 2-D picture quality and "future proofing" for the 3-D part, or merely getting the 3-D capability because it comes with the package they want.

End users seem to recognize the high quality of the 2-D images produced by 3-D TVs. For example, one user from Louisville, Kentucky, commented on the Best Buy Web site after buying a 40-in. 3-D TV:

"I did a significant amount of research before purchasing the [new] LED TV, but I was still concerned that maybe I didn't pick the best available TV for the money. After seeing the picture with high-def material, it is clear that I made the right choice. Set up was very easy ... even the wireless Internet connection. The 3-D may not be something we use often, but it is still a nice feature and it works very well."

This was not an uncommon sentiment. For this particular model of 3-D TV, 15 out of 15 reviewers would recommend it to their friends. All the reviewers raved about the picture quality, even if they had never watched 3-D content on the set and never planned to watch any.

The second issue relates to the cost of the glasses. Almost all current 3-D TV offerings, including LCD, plasma, and DLP projection, require the user to buy one pair of active glasses at $100-$250 a pair for each viewer. For a gamer who wants to play "World of Warcraft" in 3-D, buying one pair of glasses is not a major issue. For a family of five to watch TV, five pairs of glasses are required and the cost is significant. Want to throw a 3-D Superbowl party, assuming the Superbowl is in 3-D? Forget it – 25 pairs of glasses for a special event to show off your new 3-D TV and earn neighborhood bragging rights is out of the question for most of us. Oh, and by the way, those Panasonic 3-D glasses are not compatible with a Sony 3-D TV. Nor are Samsung glasses compatible with LG TVs, and so on. As volumes go up, the authors expect the price of glasses to come down because the estimated bill of materials of a pair of active glasses in high-volume production could support a price as low as $30-$50 per pair.

Coming next year in the second wave will be 3-D TVs that allow the use of passive polarized glasses, which can cost less than a dollar each. Patterned retarder solutions (alternate rows have polarizations of different states, sometimes called micro-pol or X-pol) based upon a glass-based overlay of the LCD are in the market today, but are expensive. This approach will be less costly as film-based patterned retarders are introduced. A second approach, called active retarder, will also enter the market. Developers claim these TVs will be cost competitive with active-shutter 3-D TV solutions. The low cost of the glasses will help a great deal, but consumers will still be required to wear glasses.

Summary

The introduction of 3-D TV has been compared to the introduction of two other TV technologies: high-definition TV and Internet connectivity for TV. Perhaps these products can serve as guidelines for the future of 3-D TV.

HDTV was first introduced in 1998 and now is essentially universal in terms of new TV sales in the U.S. The first years of HD were slow, however, with consumers confused, little content available, prices high, and sales disappointing. One difference between HD and 3-D is the government mandate. Digital TV was mandated by the federal government and HD was bundled under the federal rules with digital TV. This is not likely to happen with 3-D TV – no government mandates can be expected here. On the other hand, digital TV is an enabler of 3-D TV. With digital broadcasting and cable and satellite transmission, adding the extra data for 3-D becomes a relative piece of cake.

Internet TV was first announced in 1996 and is now becoming common – so common, in fact, that sales are expected to be in the 40M-unit range this year. One difference with Internet TV is that there is no lack of content on the Internet. Also, it does not require a new TV to access it, unlike 3-D. Add-on boxes such as the $99 Apple TV system can convert any TV into an Internet TV. While glasses are not required, a keyboard is, unless you are willing to use a clumsy remote control coupled to a virtual on-screen keyboard.

The introduction of 3-D TV will be slower than consumer-electronics manufacturers would like to see, but consumers will eventually take it up in large numbers. For now, any glasses-based solution will remain an "event" on TV. Instead of the evening news, sitcoms or news shows, movies, sports, and special events will be shown in 3-D. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in 3-D, anyone? •

 


Matthew Brennesholtz and Chris Chinnock are with Insight Media. They can be reached at matthew@insightmedia.info andchris@insightmedia.info.