3D TV Sales are on the increase but…Would you invest in a 3D HDTV now?

When the first 3D TVs for the consumer market appeared in 2010, the industry pushed these new TVs as the future of home entertainment. Yet sales of 3D HDTVs in 2010 did prove to be a total flop.

Sales during 2011 did turn out to be much better; indications are that 3D television shipments for 2011 exceeded 21 million units, while by end 2012, 3D HDTV sales are expected to reach 22% of all TV sales worldwide. The latter represents a surprising sharp rise in comparison to the less than 5% market share enjoyed by 3D HDTVs during the first quarter of 2011. But…

Does this mean consumers are watching more 3D at home? Are consumers buying more 3D TVs for the sake of enjoying the third dimension? And are those buying a 3D TV actually watching 3D content?

Research suggests otherwise – WHY? What are the challenges 3D HDTV technology has to overcome to become the technology of choice in the home?

3D TV: A technology still burdened by major issues

3D imaging has been around since the 1900’s with the beginning of photography and the film industry, even though the first true golden era of 3D movies came in the 50s.

However, it was not before the mid-80s that things started to make a real headway. It was IMAX 3D; and with IMAX-3D, we saw the first active LCD shutter 3D glasses.

Since then, things changed a lot and 3D technology become less expensive and more widely adopted to the point that it even started to make a presence in the home.

Surely, the first to have experienced 3D at home are avid PC gamers. The illusion of 3D leads to a totally different and more exciting viewing experience. But this is not enough for the latest 3D TV technology to become the TV technology of choice in home entertainment.

Some argue 3D TVs sales have experienced a sharp growth in 2011. This is true but 3D has now become built into so many HDTVs; most mid-range sets come with 3D while all premium HDTVs come with 3D built-in. The lower prices of 3D HDTVs we have been seeing since 2011, have also helped drive 3D television sales. It seems that TV makers have realized that one of the primary challenges 3D TVs faced during their debut in 2010 was the significantly higher price TV makers and retailers charged for 3D HDTVs in comparison to 2D-only TV sets. Within this new changing environment, the whole issue remains: Are more people actually watching 3D at home, and if not why?

3D at Home – a totally different experience from that at Movie Theaters!

The move towards 3D TV by the industry came as a result of the clear preference that moviegoers have shown during these last years to 3D movies, yet there is a significant difference between 3D in the Movie Theater and 3D TV; the smaller screen size in the home and the shorter supported viewing distance both play critical roles in the 3D experience.

Studies show that the 3D comfort zone is a function of the viewing distance. In other words, the supported parallax range for a comfortable 3D viewing experience is directly related to the viewer’s distance from the screen. As explained in our 3D Television Technology guide, the term parallax refers to the separation between the two slightly different images seen by the left and the right eye. Work carried out by In-Three Partners in 3D show that for a person in a movie theater sitting 40 feet away from the screen, the comfortable parallax range is 12.5 inches, from negative 10″ (i.e. measured away from screen surface closer to the viewer) to a positive parallax of 2.5-inches (i.e. 2.5-inches behind the screen surface). The negative parallax corresponds to the nearest point in the virtual 3D image; this lies at 20% of the distance between the viewer and the screen measured away from the viewer, i.e. 8ft away from the viewer; the positive parallax corresponds to infinity.

In the case of 3D television, this comfortable parallax range shrinks from 12.5 inches to just 2-inches (positive 1 inch to a negative 1-inch). For a person sitting approximately 6 feet away from a 60-inch diagonal screen, these values corresponds to 70% of the viewer to screen distance away from the viewer, to approximately 165% of the screen distance.

This reduced parallax for comfortable 3D arise because objects closer to the viewer exerts even more pressure on the brain to direct both the eyes’ converging and focusing muscles to the same spot in space. Because 3D TV only addresses stereopsis and therefore convergence, the two sets of eye muscles cannot match. This explains why there is the need to reduce the parallax to keep the 3D illusion at a comfortable distance away from the viewer.

As further detailed in our article on 3D viewing distance, this leads us to conclude that for best results with 3D TV viewing at home, a larger screen is essential; in addition, the reduced parallax associated with comfortable 3D viewing suggests a closer viewing distance than that associated with 2D TV. This would help enhance the otherwise mild 3D experience resulting from the reduced parallax.

This means that the smaller screen size of 3D HDTVs and the much closer viewing distance in the home lead to a 3D viewing experience that while pleasing and exciting, cannot match the same immersive 3D experience in the movie theater.

Upgrade Reluctance

When in August 2011, AT&T’s U-Verse TV service dropped the ESPN 3D channel, it stated that not enough customers were willing to pay the $10 monthly fee to watch 3D. Others like DIRECTV and Comcast are at present offering ESPN 3D for free, saying that a free channel is necessary to attract more 3D buyers.

This is in synch with the results of a recent study conducted by consultancy firm Deloitte, which found that 83% of consumers wouldn’t buy a television simply because it can support 3D content. Equally interesting is that over 60% are not even willing to pay extra for a television with 3D capabilities; only 21% of the respondents said they would pay just 10% extra for a 3D television over a 2D set.

It is evident that consumers are not willing to pay extra to watch 3D at home. Why is it so when in 2010, TV makers were pushing 3D TV technology as the future of home entertainment?

By the end of 2009, many consumers had just purchase their first LCD or plasma HDTV to meet the Digital TV transition end-date. Many others who had already bought a flat panel TV a few years ago, has just purchased their second bigger screen HDTV to take advantage of the latest reduced pricing and improved feature specs such as Internet connectivity and LED backlighting.

Even if you were to take the millions still ‘stuck’ with their old CRT TV, these are definitely the ones that at the instant they opt to upgrade to a new TV, they will most probable go for a budget class HDTV rather than the more expensive 3D HDTVs.

Yet, there is more to this consumer reluctance to spend more to enjoy 3D at home than just money. A study released by Nielsen during the third quarter of 2011 revealed that 90% of respondents said that watching 3D TV would hinder them from doing the tasks they usually engage in while watching TV.

Availability of 3D HDTV Content

But even for those viewers who are ready to pay extra to watch 3D programming, there is still a lack of 3D content and services; the present available 3D content is just but a fraction of what is available in 2D.

Luckily, most 3D TVs come with build-in 2D-to-3D converters that convert in real time 2D shows, movies and sports events, to 3D. These 2D-to-3D converters generally rely on image motion in the scene to reconstruct some 3D effect. This is basically the same with 2D-to-3D converted movie titles. In fact, most of the 3D content available on Blu ray is converted from 2D originals which most probably you have already seen. This partly solves the problem but the resultant 3D experience does not provide a match to the realism of true 3D content; converted 2D to 3D content will NEVER look like original 3D content.

And even if the build-in 2D-to-3D converters in 3D TVs were to deliver a truly convincing 3D experience, you would not be able to enjoy this 3D without wearing those annoying 3D glasses. Are you really ready to put on your 3D glasses every time you want to watch TV?

Samsung SSG-3100GB 3D Active Glasses

3D glasses are a necessary evil with present 3D television technology, and in our opinion, these remain one of the biggest hurdles 3D television has to overcome.

Last year, Nielsen released a study claiming that 57 per cent of people would not buy a 3D TV because they don’t want to wear the special glasses required to watch 3D programming.

It is true that during CES 2011, Toshiba, Sony and LG demonstrated prototype no-glasses 3D TVs capable of supporting a bright full 1080p image for each eye in 3D mode; the bright image is mainly due to the absence of glasses. But those prototypes all suffered from a restricted viewing angle apart from supporting just three practical 3D viewing positions.

Since then, progress has been minimal―with Toshiba being the only TV maker that did register significant improvements during CES2012. During this year CES, Toshiba presented a no-glasses 3D TV that did produce impressive 3D imaging without glasses; it supported a much wider viewing angle and had nine practical 3D viewing positions. The Toshiba no-glasses 3D HDTV uses a built-in camera to detect the viewer’s position; this is necessary to enable the TV to provide the viewer with the best no-glasses 3D viewing experience. These new HDTVs make use of extremely powerful image processors even though the Toshiba exhibit did prove a bit slow to detect changes in the viewer’s position.

3D no-glasses technology is still not perfect but the latest Toshiba attempt goes to show that the technology works and through continued developments, it is possible to achieve the perfect 3D viewing experience without the need for 3D glasses. However, for the time being, passive or active 3D glasses will remain a pre-requisite for you to enjoy 3D at home.

Wearing 3D glasses to watch a 2 hour move to enjoy it in the latest and supposedly greatest 3D television technology ever released so far, is definitely a trade-off many are ready to accept. But will you stick those glasses for longer to watch TV?

And what about the added discomfort 3D glasses will cause to people who wear normal prescription lenses? It is true that 3D glasses are somewhat oversized and designed to fit over an existing pair of glasses. In other words, these persons will still be able to experience the full 3D effect, but the added discomfort can be a real issue despite the new lighter designs. In this respect, passive circular polarized 3D glasses as used by Vizio, LG, and Toshiba yield a better comfort level as these are much lighter. They also come much cheaper than the typically $40 to $60 for a pair of active 3D-glasses.

The price to pay for the added level of comfort and the cheaper price of passive 3D glasses is that these systems support half the resolution, meaning that your 1080p HDTV would deliver an image that is more in line with that of a 720p than a 1080p TV. The result is a softer image, a softness that becomes more evident when one is sitting at close viewing distances in front of a TV screen size in excess of 50-inch diagonal.

Yet there is one more annoyance as associated with the use of both active and passive 3D shutter glasses; but this one relates to LCD and LED TV users only.

Many 3D shutter glasses users will soon realize that as soon as they try to relax on their couch while watching their 3D LCD or LED TV in action, the 3D image on their 3D TV would go dark as they tilt backwards. Because of the polarizer layer used on LCD panels – both on the LCD TV display and the 3D shutter glasses, the viewer has to sit in an upright position to get the best 3D effect; try to tilt or sit back with the glasses at an angle to the LCD TV screen and the image would go dark as the polarization plane of the display panel and that of the glasses cross each other. This issue does not affect 3D plasma TVs.

So… What is the future of 3D HDTV? Is it really worth investing in a 3D TV just for the sake of enjoying the third dimension?

As stated in our introduction, whether you like it or not, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a premium or even a mid-range HDTV without 3D. If you want to invest in a mid-range HDTV, the probability is that you will end up with a 3D-enabled TV. Of course, you are paying extra for the feature but the extra expense is being masked by other enhancements. You see, TV makers have realized that 3D alone would not sell, and unless packaged with a more enhanced feature set, this technology is doomed to fail. The reason is that present 3D TV technology lacks the convenience, ease of use, and affordability many expect from a product supposedly addressed to the mass market.

In particular, the use of 3D shutter glasses – passive of active – will continue to represent a major hurdle for both consumers and TV makers. Add the higher expense associated with the required 3D-enabled gear and subscription to 3D programming to enjoy 3D at home and soon 3D does not remain that fun anymore!

Yet there is more! As further explained in our article ‘3D is Not for Everyone”, some are literally 3D TV blind, while up to 20 percent of the population could get sick from watching 3D TV because their brains cannot handle the present 3D processing necessary to create the 3D illusion. For this reason, the industry acknowledges that many will have to take at least a break every 15 minutes while watching 3D to avoid feeling sick; but this is totally unpractical when watching broadcast 3D content.

We are not saying that 3D TV is a failure. Yet, while market analysts expect sales of 3D TVs to continue spreading over a wider audience during this year as prices of 3D-enabled HDTVs will continue to fall and more content becomes available, we believe that the spread of 3D-enabled HDTVs will take a more natural pace than what the industry had predicted so far. Consumers would not be buying a 3D TV for the sake of 3D content; instead, they will get their new 3D-enabled HDTV only when their arise the need for them to replace one of their older TVs.

In the meantime, there are definitely a lot more hurdles the industry has to overcome for 3D at home to become a mass market preposition. As expressed earlier on, passive 3D glasses technology cuts the image resolution by half while competing active 3D glasses systems are still hindered by a bundle of picture glitches; in the meantime, glassless 3D TV technology is both very expensive and far from perfect. And overall, the less immersive 3D experience at home leaves a lot to be desired. In addition, the lack of 3D content, the general consumer reluctance to pay extra for 3D content, and consumers’ unwillingness to upgrade just for the sake of 3D TV, are equally major issues of concern for the industry.

Would you like to let us know what you think?

What is your opinion? Would you invest in a 3D TV now? If you already have a 3D-enabled HDTV at home, are you watching more 3D content? What is your say about the use of 3D shutter glasses? We are interested in your opinion, and many others are interested too.

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