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3DTV sales rise, but do owners care about the third dimension?

According to a new study, 3D LCD TV shipments are up and continuing to rise. But buying 3DTVs and playing 3D content are two very different things.

Why are people buying 3DTVs?
Why are people buying 3DTVs?
Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Television vendors are selling more 3DTV sets than ever, but whether those buyers are actually using the 3D is a major question mark right now.

Research firm NPD's DisplaySearch unit reported today that 6.6 million 3D LCD TVs shipped during the third quarter, representing a gain of 27 percent over shipments during the second quarter. DisplaySearch expects 3DTV shipments to jump 30 percent in the fourth quarter. All told, the firm expects 21.5 million 3D televisions to ship this year.

That success has helped 3D televisions cut into 2D market share. In the first quarter of 2011, 2D TVs represented 95.5 percent of the LCD TV market. By the end of this year, they will have 85.1 percent market share, and by the end of the third quarter of 2012, they will represent only 78.5 percent of the market, NPD predicts.

The speed of 3DTVs' market success likely surprises many industry observers. In March, Futuresource Consulting predicted that only 8 million 3DTVs would be sold this year. It estimated that 15 million 3D televisions will be purchased by consumers next year. If NPD's findings are accurate, and consumers are buying a good portion of the 3D sets being shipped, it appears that many more sets are being purchased than Futuresource predicted.

But all that growth in 3D television sales doesn't necessarily mean that consumers are buying the sets for their added abilities.

Television vendors have been pushing 3D sets on customers all year. In fact, companies such as Samsung, Vizio, and Panasonic, among others, have made 3D a key component in a large number of their televisions, making it harder and harder to find sets that don't come with 3D support.

It also helps that vendors have been aggressively pricing 3D televisions. As NPD's vice president for the Greater China Market, David Hsieh, pointed out in a statement today, in the past, LCD TV makers had an "oversupply" of 3D sets because of "the price premium for 3D panels." However, TV manufacturers have recently been "strongly promoting 3D through lower prices and the introduction of new, cost-effective technologies," which has only helped sales.

For what are consumers buying 3DTVs?
Surely, some people are buying 3D sets to get access to 3D content. But based on studies performed over the last year or so, it appears that few consumers are really looking to access 3D content in their living rooms.

Last year, consultancy Deloitte found in a study that 83 percent of consumers wouldn't buy a television simply because it can support 3D content. Moreover, 60 percent of respondents said they aren't willing to pay extra for a television with 3D capabilities, and 21 percent of those surveyed said they would pay just 10 percent more for a 3D television over a set that doesn't have the technology. Given those responses, the success of 3DTVs following the price cuts seems to make some sense.

But once those 3DTVs get home, are consumers actually watching 3D content? Last year, Nielsen released a study claiming that 57 percent of people would not buy a 3DTV because they don't want to wear the special glasses required to watch 3D programming. Furthermore, nearly 90 percent of respondents said watching 3DTV would hinder the other tasks they engage in while watching TV, such as checking e-mail or surfing the Web.

Even for those folks who want to watch 3D programming, NPD said there is still a "lack of 3D content and services" available to them.