We’re Crawling Not Leaping into the 3rd Dimension

By Lloyd Mason – March 2011

Few innovations in TVs history have caused as much divisiveness as 3D. Currently the darling of consumer electronics, manufacturers and retailers far and wide are actively demonstrating this revolutionary new form of TV. However consumers don’t seem to be buying it; either the idea or the technology itself.

So what explains the public’s apparent lack of affection for 3D?  According to What Hi-Fi? magazine, 135,000 3D screens were sold in 2010, the first year the technology has really been available to British consumers. This seems respectable until you consider that nearly 10m TVs were sold in total and set sales were bumper last year due to the boost of the football World Cup in South Africa, always a driving point for sales of new sets. 3D sets totalled 1.35% of sales.

Now it is possible to give the third-dimension a break; it is a new premium (read ‘costly’) technology and therefore will only really demand the attentions of so-called early adopters. This determined group are also the section of the population most likely put up with shortcomings in technology and missing functionality. In comparison, Joe Public wants good value for money and a tangible upgrade before handing over the Mastercard.

The problems 3D must tackle in order to achieve mass consumer take-up are threefold.

Firstly, there is a distinct lack of content. For 3DTV at home there are three main routes to content – Blu-ray, on-demand and broadcast. 3D Blu-ray films have been slow to surface, about 40 were available at the end of 2010. On-demand 3D is available on Virgin and BT Vision’s TV services on a pay-per-view rental basis but have only 5 and 3 feature films available respectively. This explains why Sky has over half of the 3D population in the UK on its books. Offering Europe’s first 3D broadcast channel from October 2010 has meant that the satellite broadcaster can boast the richest bouquet of 3D content on offer; movies, sports, music and documentaries are all available each day and moreover, are recordable on Sky+ boxes. However, the 70,000 subscribers it has racked up on the Sky 3D channel are also paying subscription to Sky’s top-tier package at £62 a month.

This brings us to the second hindrance, cost. We have alluded to the topic twice already but it is probably the largest turn off for consumers that show any initial interest in getting 3D TV. Not only do you have to purchases a 3D ready screen, often with £80 glasses needed for each viewer, a 3D specific source is needed too such as Sky 3D or 3D Blu-ray player plus film.  This premium is mirrored in the cinema too where a 3D movie at Odeon Leicester Square will cost £18.60; rather than £15.60 for it’s 2D sibling.

Thirdly a lack of consumer education will also restrict sales, and though this like the other two problems will eventually be alleviated, is likely to be a more stubborn stain on 3D’s reputation. With a lack of industry standards in hardware (proprietary glasses, HDMI connections etc.) the process of purchasing can be complicated. Add to this reports of sickness and headaches (Wired report less than 20% actually experience discomfort) and consumers have an increasing amount of reasons to steer clear. This same problem was seen when high-definition TV first emerged and many consumers assumed buying a ‘HD-Ready’ television set rewarded them with HD TV content. The industry relied on retailers to educate consumers on the subject but felt they were slow to get their act together. If consumers are to understand and feel comfortable with 3D at home, they need to understand it rather than feel alienated by it.

Once 3D TV shakes off these issues consumers may begin to come around to the idea of having 3D in the home. However, if this takes too long it will have already been overlooked as a passing fad – it’s probably got a couple of years of consumer patience to play with.

However, even then it is likely to a remain a rather niche product. Event based broadcast such as sports and movies lend themselves well to 3D – they only last a couple of hours and can generally make the most of interesting camera angles and eye-popping situations; Eastenders in 3D doesn’t seem to make sense.

Consumers want to love 3D, and have done ever since it was first trialled over 50 years ago. It needs to address its many problems if it is to make any headway in 2011, until then it will remain a gimmick dipped into for sporadic events; there’s been no revolution yet.

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