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Three challenges for 3D TV

It's been promised as "the next big thing" since the advent of color TV. But is there really any consumer demand for 3D television?

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Will Twentieth Century Fox

CES 2010 doesn't start until later this week, but I can already tell you what the biggest trend will be: 3D TV. While 3D was teased at the 2009 CES, for 2010 we'll be seeing manufacturers tout actual products that consumers will be able to buy by next Christmas (if not much earlier). But my question is: Does anybody actually want to buy it?

The industry thinks 3D is a slam dunk. It's already a hit in theaters--almost half of the top-10 highest grossing movies of 2009 were offered in 3D--so the thought is it should translate perfectly to the home. And the current technology is widely agreed to be superior to the red/blue anaglyph method used throughout the middle-to-late 20th century.

Call me a skeptic, but I consider the industry's enthusiasm to be premature. I think bringing 3D to the home will be an uphill battle, for three main reasons:

1. Lack of 3D content. There's no doubt that Hollywood is stepping up production of 3D features. But even if all new movies started being produced in 3D, they would represent only a small percentage of the overall catalog of available films. Yes, studios are starting to "retrofit" older movies for 3D (such as the recently 3D-ified versions of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2"), but it's an expensive and time-consuming process. New 3D-only TV channels--such as those rumored to be coming from DirecTV--may solve part of the problem, but until broadcasters and sports leagues start investing in producing 3D TV shows and covering major games in 3D, expect these channels to be looping "Avatar," "Up," and the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics all day.

2. Upgrade fatigue. In 2008, I purchased a $400 PlayStation 3, which also doubles as a Blu-ray player. In 2009, I bought a 50-inch plasma TV for $1,600. I'm extremely satisfied with both products (even though both, of course, can now be purchased at even lower prices), and I feel like I'm getting my money's worth every time I watch TV or play a game on that gorgeous big-screen. But two grand is a lot of money. I have no desire to get a new TV or Blu-ray player anytime soon, even if they've got a new whiz-bang feature like 3D. And I think that's true of the majority of folks who paid big bucks to upgrade to HDTV in the past decade. Meanwhile, those who are still waiting to go HD--and there are millions--will be more likely to go for ever more affordable entry-level big-screen models, not premium-priced 3D models. The same goes for home video. Even if Hollywood does convert a boatload of movies to 3D, are you really going to be happy about paying for yet another version of "Star Wars"?

3. The glasses. Ah, the 3D elephant in the room. Newer 3D processes may far exceed what was offered in the 1950s or 1980s, but they still require the viewer to don a pair of glasses. That's an acceptable trade-off for a two- or three-hour "event" movie like "Avatar." But do you really want to do it every time you watch "The Big Bang Theory," "Lost," or "American Idol"? How about football or baseball? No, I didn't think so.

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Are any of these obstacles insurmountable? No. But they are challenging, and they will be expensive to address. Nor do they guarantee that 3D TV will be stillborn. But I think that 3D will remain a niche technology relegated to early adopters, at least for the near future.

Will we eventually see 3D go down in a Hindenburg-style plume of failure, a la HD DVD? Probably not. I'd expect it to be more like SACD or DVD Audio--other "next big thing" formats that never took off, but remain supported in many hardware products, if only because the cost of doing so is now negligible. (Just don't expect to see your favorite artist releasing albums in either format.) Or consider that other supposed "must-have" cinema experience: surround sound. The technology has long been affordable, ubiquitous, and relatively easy to add to the home. You can find it in every DVD and Blu-ray player, cable and satellite box, and game console. And yet, most consumers stick with the so-so stereo speakers built into their TVs.

As for 3D, I think the industry's best bet would be to focus on gamers. Avid gamers have proven to be tech-savvy, deep-pocketed, and the most willing to accept the need for step-up peripherals to enhance the gaming experience--everything from headsets to motion controllers. Adding goggles to the mix wouldn't be too much of a stretch. Gamers are probably the most receptive audience for 3D in the home--at least until the electronics industry can figure out a way to deliver it without the glasses.

What do you think: are you interested in upgrading to 3D in the home (even if it requires new TVs and home theater gear), or are you satisfied with the existing 2D experience?