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In a recent AP news story, writer Ryan Nakashima details how, despite millions of dollars in advertising and promotion over the past 3+ years, American TV viewers have basically ignored 3D TV.

According to the story, “…fewer than 115,000 American TV homes are tuned in to 3D at any given time. That’s less than a hundredth of the 20.2 million-strong audience that watched television’s highest-rated show, NCIS, this week.”

The AP story details that The Nielsen Company can’t capture any significant data about the viewing preferences of this tiny group of viewers. It would also explain the complete lack of ‘buzz’ about Panasonic’s August 3D TV coverage of the 2012 Olympics.

Audience indifference to 3D TV is why DirecTV turned n3D, its barely two-year-old 24-hour 3D channel, into a part-time 3D network, carrying only the rare original 3D broadcast. And it also resulted in AT&T’s U-Verse system dropping ESPN 3D from its channel lineup, citing the high $10 monthly cost for the full ESPN package of channels.

Tom Morrod, an analyst with research firm HIS (formerly iSuppli), was quoted as saying, “There’s very little direct consumer demand for 3-D. They don’t see a value with it. Consumers associate value right now with screen size and very few other features.” That observation, along with consumer disdain for 3D TV, has been backed up by numerous consumer preference surveys. The demand for larger, cheaper TVs above all else is mirrored in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Last November, the Leichtman Research Group polled 1,300 viewers who had watched 3D TV. Of that group, 38 percent rated 3D TV ‘poor,’ as opposed to just 8 percent who rated it excellent. Those numbers have been pretty consistent in several polls since the first 3D TVs came to market in early 2009.

A story that appeared on the CIO Asia Web site earlier this week, offering preview coverage of the annual CEATEC trade show in Japan, stated that “…TV makers appear to be shifting away from years of emphasis on 3D, a technology that has failed to capture the imagination of consumers, even as an value-added offering.”

The emphasis was on the emerging crop of 4K TVs from Sony, LG, JVC, Toshiba, and others. In the story, analyst Keita Wakabayashi at Mito Securities stated that “TV makers weren’t able to use 3D to boost the prices of their sets, so it has just become a drag on their profits. 4K technologies have much more appeal, though at current prices just for the wealthy.”

This inability to capture any premium for 3D means that support for the format will just become a standard feature in most TVs that can be accessed through the user menu. What’s not clear is whether TV manufacturers will continue to supply active shutter or passive 3D eyewear with new TVs to take advantage of that function.

My thinking is that, in an era of squeezed profit margins and red ink, they won’t for much longer. 3D glasses will transition to an accessory item as manufacturers shift their focus to raising consumer awareness of 4K TV. Currently, the latter sets are quite expensive, hovering in the range of $20,000 right now. That’s about what a 50-inch plasma TV cost in the late 1990s.

But we know those prices will come down. NPD DisplaySearch analyst David Hsieh, in a September blog post, stated that 4K TVs will make it to market faster than large OLED TVs and at a more affordable price before long. The yield issues with large OLED panels that have stumped LG Display aren’t a problem with 4K LCDs, even with oxide TFT backplanes still waiting in the wings.

Hsieh states that both AUO and Chi Mei Innolux have shown they can manufacture 4K x 2K LCD panels using a conventional amorphous silicon process, and that a 50” 4K x 2K LCD panel with conventional backlighting is priced at $800, compared to $400 for a 2K 50” panel with slim (edge) LED backlight. He also cites a price of $5,000 for the 84” 4K IPS panel that LG, Sony, and Toshiba are currently using.

Your takeaway? Simply that 4K has a much better chance of stimulating consumer interest than 3D ever did. And I say this knowing full well that (a) there is no 4K content currently available for home viewing, (b) the infrastructure to deliver it over Internet connections doesn’t exist at present, and (c) the early crop of 4K TVs and projectors are just too expensive for the masses for now.

4K TV has a big advantage over 3D, though. It provides an immersive, life-like viewing experience that you don’t need glasses to enjoy, even if you have an eye disorder like 20+% of the U.S. population does. 4K is scalable across a wide range of screen sizes, from 24” on up. All of the mainstream projector technologies (HTPS LCD, DLP, and LCoS) already support it, as do the mainstream direct-view platforms – LCD and plasma. And OLED will, too – when it gets out of the starting gate.

From the content side, there are demonstrable advantages to those who choose to shoot, edit, and finish productions in 4K; particularly with live sporting events and concerts. One 4K camera can cover a wider range of the field and stage, and downstream image processing is used to ‘extract’ multiple 2K segments of the captured images for replays and cutaway views – resulting in a savings in equipment and labor costs. (This approach has already been shown by NHK using 8K cameras).

Those advantages, coupled with more affordable pricing, will drive 4K acquisition and production. That, in turn, will stimulate solutions to home delivery of 4K content, which will consequently light the fire under consumers for 4K TV demand. And all of those underlined qualifiers I listed three paragraphs back will disappear.

This won’t happen overnight – HDTV took 6+ years to become a mainstream production and viewing format – but it will happen. DisplaySearch is currently forecasting that 4K will account for 2% of LCD TVs in 2017 – five years from now – and 22% of the 50”+ TV market.

Most importantly, 4K TVs don’t have to contend with nearly four years of active vs. passive vs. autostereo format wars, battery-operated shutter glasses, film-patterned retarders, critical viewing angles, and half-resolution frame-compatible content; issues that have haunted 3D TV and turned off consumers.

No wonder there are all those empty chairs, unused party favors, and stale slices of cake over at the 3D TV party…


This story originally appeared in Display Daily 10/15/12.

Posted by Pete Putman, October 11, 2012 6:12 AM

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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.