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Taking a dim view of 3D in smartphones

LG is the latest company to market 3D as the next great feature for the smartphone, but do consumers care?

LG Electronics' Thrill 4G is the wireless industry's latest attempt to push 3D capabilities into consumers' hands.

But it's unclear if consumers are ready to grab hold of it yet.

LG Thrill 4G showing 3D content. Nicole Lee/CNET

3D is the latest feature to be crammed in the increasingly Swiss Army-knife-like smartphone. Like with televisions, the feature is getting aggressive marketing support. But despite the marketing campaigns, the feature has been little more than a gimmick. And like 3D televisions, there's been tepid interest.

"3D is just one of an onslaught of features that end up on a phone even if people don't ask for it," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.

HTC, with the Evo 3D, was the first to sell a 3D phone, and carrier partner Sprint Nextel has been pushing the feature hard in recent commercials. Not to be outdone, LG is looking to drum up some interest in its own 3D phone, which AT&T will sell in the next few weeks for $99.99 with a two-year contract.

Later today, LG will hold a concert featuring rock band Jane's Addiction to promote the phone. The hook: a number of concert-goers will be using a Thrill to tape the concert in 3D, with the footage getting sliced and patched together to create a user-generated 3D video. LG bills it as the "world's first 3D user-generated concert."

Next month, it plans a 3D gaming tournament with mobile-game maker Gameloft and the 3D version of its N.O.V.A. shooter.

It's unclear whether all that hype will translate into sales.

Smartphones have one advantage over televisions in that their smaller screens mean you can look at the phone without glasses and still see the 3D effect. The expensive glasses are one of the barriers to people widely adopting these televisions.

The feature, however, has yielded mixed results. In my review of the Evo 3D, I noted that while some people saw the effect, others were turned off by it. Gizmodo said the Evo 3D "is the first phone to ever literally hurt my face."

"I can't see anybody getting excited about 3D as the thing that gets them to buy a phone," Lopez said.

For LG, the Thrill means more than just getting in early on the 3D craze. The smartphone is expected to get a decent push from AT&T, something the handset manufacturer hasn't enjoyed recently with its other phones. The company's strategy was unfocused last year, resulting in further gains by rivals such as Samsung Electronics and HTC. But this year, LG has gotten together a decent lineup at all of the carriers, including the Revolution at Verizon and the G2x at T-Mobile USA.

Like HTC, LG has said it is aiming to sell a solid smartphone first, with the 3D capability coming in second. While the Evo 3D has a physical switch you can toggle to turn off the 3D capability, the Thrill has its own 3D zone within the phone to keep the 3D and 2D parts separate.

While analysts believe the 3D feature will be more attractive down the line--particularly with sports and video games--some suggest focusing on improving more basic features. Hugues de la Vergne, an analyst at Gartner, says the manufacturers should work on higher-resolution displays and better power management.

Samsung, for instance, has stood out by continually improving its Amoled screen technology, which is able to display more vibrant color while staying power efficient.

"The old phrase a picture is worth a thousand words tends to work well in retail sales," de la Vergne said.