3D at home still a tough sell

TV makers still face roadblocks in convincing consumers of the value of 3D at home.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read
Sony, Panasonic and others hope well-done executions of the new era of 3D technology in theaters will lead consumers to buy 3D TVs at home. Scott Ard/CNET

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Even if "Piranha 3D" has a modestly successful box-office debut this weekend, it could in the long run do more damage to the hopes of 3D TV makers than good.

The more 3D movies available, the better is what the consumer electronics industry's strongest proponents of 3D would say. After all, the more opportunities to demonstrate the technology to people and sell the 3D Blu-ray copy later is in their interests. But a horror movie starring three-dimensional carnivorous fish, and similarly schlocky uses of the technology could be a setback.

The industry that's trying to convince people to buy TVs and Blu-ray players capable of re-creating the 3D theater experience at home are already fighting the perception that 3D is a short-lived trend, a rehash of past failed technology, and worse, a gimmick.

That and other roadblocks to TV buyers embracing the still-nascent technology was part of a panel discussion about the future of 3D here at the DisplaySearch TV Ecosystem conference on Wednesday.

"Making 3D movies is relatively easy. Making good 3D is hard," said Mike Abary, Sony senior vice president of Home Electronics. "We have to do a very good job as an industry to ensure quality 3D is brought to the consumer otherwise it will just be considered a gimmick by consumers."

He didn't refer to "Piranha 3D" specifically, but it's hard not to connect the dots when the horror movie is the highest-profile example of an intentionally campy execution of 3D.

"The end game is to make (3D) not a special effect but a key resource in the storyteller's tool kit," said Phil Lelyveld, who manages the Consumer 3D Experience Lab at the Entertainment Technology Center @ USC.

That means getting to a place where 3D is done subtly and in a way that makes entertainment "immersive," the panelists agreed.

"There's a long way to go to make sure that 3D is done right," said Abary.

"Avatar" was a huge hit for the 3D industry, but it hasn't yet translated to mainstream consumers' embrace of 3D at home.
"Avatar" was a huge hit for the 3D industry, but it hasn't yet translated to mainstream consumers' embrace of 3D at home. Fox Home Video

It's a sentiment that applies not just to the kinds of 3D films people will watch, but the cost and experience too.

Avatar's success in theaters last winter is indisputable, and as predicted, the $2.7 billion made at box offices worldwide was seen as an endorsement of the new era of 3D. But the consumer electronics industry--the people selling you TVs, Blu-ray players, cameras, and game consoles that play 3D content--is still struggling to build on that success. The perceived longevity of this latest installment of 3D technology, still-high prices, the physical experience of watching 3D, and quality content are still standing in the way of the home 3D ecosystem's establishment in the mainstream.

TVs capable of 3D were one of the hot topics at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, and many started shipping in the spring. Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Toshiba have each released or announced they'd make 3D TVs for sale by the end of this year. Naturally these TVs cost more than a regular HDTV and for people who are not entirely convinced 3D is necessary, that's a problem. It's one of the biggest barriers for people buying, said Abary.

"We're trying to see the premium decreased. We'll be introducing our 3D technology in more mainstream price points by our 2011 launch, which is next spring," he told the conference attendees.

One of the other barriers for potential buyers who might be interested is not only that they have to use special stereoscopic glasses to watch 3D at home, but the cost. Though some sets come with two pairs free, most homes have more people who watch television than that, and the average price to buy an extra pair is around $150.

There's also not an accepted industry standard for those glasses yet. Until there is, companies like XpanD are trying to sell "universal" active-shutter 3D glasses that can be used with any brand of 3D TV. The first pair will arrive at IFA Berlin in a couple weeks for $129, said David Chechelashvili, who is in charge of retail for XpanD. He predicted Wednesday that the Consumer Electronics Association won't have an agreed-upon standard for two more years. And the kind of 3D displays that don't require glasses at all could be even further off than that.

That's bad news for those who find watching 3D to be physically uncomfortable. Marty Banks, who runs the Vision Science Program at University of California, Berkeley, shared the results of his studies of 18- to 30-year-olds' physical response to 3D images at the conference. His tests show that his subjects reported an array of responses when watching 3D displays: they felt tired, had blurry vision, and felt eye and head pain.

Studies like Banks' have gotten the attention of 3D film and hardware makers, said USC's Lelyveld. Studios, gaming publishers, and electronics makers are consulting vision scientists to help reduce these kinds of complaints. Variety called this growing field of study "neurocinematics" recently.

The lesson so far is that even when moviegoers are buying tickets to 3D films at the box office, it's not translating into a rapid adoption of 3D products at home.

Perhaps the best example of 3D-at-home's not really being ready for prime time: the biggest 3D film of all time, "Avatar," is still not available on Blu-ray in 3D.