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The latest PR blurb from CEA headquarters shows that, in a survey taken of 250 sales associates in retail stores, consumer enthusiasm for 3D is strong, with 50% of customers reporting a positive response to 3D technologies, and only 2% reporting a negative response.

That’s not necessarily good news. Do the math, and you’ll see that 47% of customers had no feelings about 3D TV one way or the other, or didn’t respond. (Or were distracted by their teenagers repeatedly begging Mom and Dad for an iPhone or iPod Touch.)

The CEA report does go on to say that “…While nearly 70 percent of sales associates feel well trained to answer questions about 3D, there is still consumer confusion. According to the retail associates interviewed, roughly half of consumers had some confusion about the technology.” That pretty much covers the 47% who didn’t respond positively or negatively.

And now for the devil in the details! “…For most retail associates, 3D content is pivotal. Nearly 80 percent of the associates interviewed believe sales of 3D technologies will not be strong until more 3D content is available.  Moreover, some of the most frequently asked questions by consumers revolved around the availability of 3D content. “

World Cup in 3D...Been there, done that. What else ya got?

There’s the rub. 3D may look great in the store, but how much 3D World Cup coverage can you watch before nodding off? (Hey, did you catch Paraguay and Japan fighting to a 0-0 tie?) And there are only a couple of 3D Blu-ray discs out there that haven’t been exclusively linked up to a 3D TV bundle promotion.

DirecTV is taking some steps to solve the problem today, announcing the launch of its 24-hour 3D channel in conjunction with Panasonic at a New York City press event. That’s good news for DirecTV customers, but it’s not much help to cable or Dish Network subscribers who are currently limited to ESPN 3D.

If this seems like déjà vu all over again (apologies to Yogi Berra), it is. Remember the start of the digital TV transition in 1998, when exactly two DTV stations went on the air? (For trivia buffs, they were WRAL (CBS) in Raleigh, NC, and WFAA (ABC) in Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX.)

Set-top boxes cost about two grand. You needed component inputs on your TV that could accept the 1080i signal from the box (good luck with the 720p outputs), plus an antenna, and maybe a preamp, and a bunch of coax, and a compass to tell you where to aim the antenna.

Oh, and yes – you needed HDTV content. But there was very little of it back then, aside from some CBS prime-time programs and the ABC Saturday Night Movie. It wasn’t until four years later (2002) before most of the TV networks were carrying a majority of their evening programs and sports coverage in HD. Can 3D TV manufacturers afford to wait that long?

It’s encouraging that 70% of the sales associates interviewed by CEA felt competent enough to answer questions about 3D. But that’s not the problem, based on my experience last Sunday at Best Buy. Only two out of four 3D TV demos in the store were actually working, and one was located in the worst possible spot for a demo. The other had only one pair of working 3D glasses. How do you answer questions about 3D, when customers can’t even see a demonstration of it?

This is where a company like Sony has a leg up with their Sony Style company stores. They can ensure (and they’d better!) that potential customers get the best possible 3D demo, with a large screen LCD TV and comfortable seats positioned at the correct viewing distance. And they can put together a nice mix of live 3D (Sony is a World Cup sponsor) and clips from Sony Pictures 3D movies (think Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).

Samsung’s ‘experience’ store in the Time-Warner Center in New York City is also an excellent place to demo 3D. (Hmmm. Maybe Samsung should be thinking about opening their own company stores!) Alas, Panasonic has no such showcase and is at the mercy of Best Buy and Sears. And Mitsubishi (who has some of the most compelling 3D TV value propositions right now) has no 3D showcases at all. (Too bad they can’t just truck their June NYC line show around the country!)

Now, THIS is how ALL 3D demos should look. (Dream on...)

But all the demos in the world won’t do any good if there is nothing to watch in 3D. And for the vast majority of potential 3D TV customers, there just isn’t enough to watch in 3D right now, so the credit cards and checkbooks are staying in pockets and purses.

Hopefully, that problem will sort itself out by year’s end, when we should see a flurry of 3D BD releases, more coverage of sporting events, the launch of Discovery’s 3D channel, and maybe even some 3D streaming from Netflix. (That last possibility assumes Netflix can get over some significant technical hurdles, such as bandwidth.)

Hint to TV manufacturers, and to Fox Sports: S-U-P-E-R B-O-W-L I-N 3-D. (Think that was subtle enough?)

So, we’re back to 1998. Grab some shovels and picks, and let’s get started on those highways! (Maybe there are still some stimulus funds available?)

Posted by Pete Putman, July 1, 2010 8:23 AM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.