3DTV at CES: Poking Holes in the Hype

It's high time somebody said it. Sit through one too many CES keynotes, press conferences, or pitches, and you just might leave Las Vegas with the mistaken idea that 3DTV is going to be in all of our living rooms next year. ESPN and Discovery are committing to 3D cable and satellite channels, Sony is upgrading its PS3s to do 3D, and Taylor Swift's live performance opening night at CES was shown live in 3D (Right behind her, mind you. You had to put the glasses on in order to see Taylor Swift in 3D when she was, actually, in 3D already, right in front of the audience.)

There is some reality in the 3D hype, just some.

First, let's compare 3D at CES this year to the previous years. From the current obsessive coverage, you'd think this was all new, but on some levels it's not. For the last two years, we've watched 3D movies, played 3D games, and watched 3D sports at CES. The difference in 2010 is that we're looking at commercially ready products. Between the major TV makers, there are at least 20 TVs on display here that we are promised will actually be sold around the world sometime this year. That is genuine progress. Plus, with Sony's commitment to making the PS3 capable of playing Blu-ray discs, we actually have millions of US homes that would be able to show 3D content (although I can find only two Blu-ray 3D discs announced for 2010 so far, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the ghastly Jim Carrey version of A Christmas Carol). So it's entirely real to suggest that by the end of this year, a few families will spend a few hours watching content in 3D. 

But let's get real: Not even a million US homes will do this in 2010.

Reading some reports put out by the industry (see the 3+ million estimate reported in this BBC piece from earlier today, for example), you might fall for the assertion that just because millions of people watched Avatar in 3D that they will all run right out and buy a $2000 3D TV set. Here are the top three reality checks for 3D TV.

  1. Everybody just bought a new TV. Between 2007 and 2009, over 40 million HD TVs were sold in the US, most of them close to or below $1000. In 2008, the hottest ticket was the 40+ inch TV set, because people like Vizio were selling them at Costco at $999. That means people who really love sport, movies, and gaming, already have a massive flat screen in their living rooms. Already in 2009, the best selling units were not 40+ inches, but smaller sets, destined for the bedroom or the den. Because the living room was already taken care of, at least in the homes most likely to care about video -- the same homes likely to enjoy 3D. Now we're going to ask those same people to spend between $2000 and $4000 to get a good 3D TV set with just two sets of active shutter glasses?Sorry, the credit card is going to stay in the wallet for this one.
  2. The 3D experience is only good for a handful of viewing experiences. I had one reporter in the run up to CES seriously ask me how long it would take to see the evening news in 3D. I said, "hopefully that will never happen." 3D viewing requires focused attention, and only a few people can do it at a time because the ideal 3D experience can only occur with a fairly direct view of the TV (don't let TV makers kid you about viewing angles -- you can see the 3D effect from an angle, but it's distorted and not nearly worth sitting through a 2 hour movie for). Gaming is the ideal environment for 3D -- gameheads stare straight at the screen in immersive gameplay for hours. That's why gaming will lead in 3D. Sports content is the best broadcast content suited for 3D, and movies are next in line, probably delivered via Blu-ray for the next few years. Total hours a week you might want to watch in 3D? From 2 to  5 hours for most, up to 10 for a real serious gamer. That's between 10% and 20% of viewing time, and that assumes that content is available, which it's not. Would you be willing to spend the extra thousands in order to enhance 10% of your viewing time? Probably not.
  3. This requires a huge investment from the industry. You get the sense already that what we're asking of consumers is a big deal. But it's not just them. Yes, they have to buy a new TV, probably a new Blu-ray player (most Blu-ray players sold this past holiday season in the $100 to $200 range were not advanced enough to be firmware updated to conform to the new Blu-ray 3D spec), and they have to invest in 3D content sources (Blu-ray discs, new 3D games, and eventually, cable channels). But the industry has to make an even bigger investment. First more 3D content has to be created -- that means new (expensive) cameras, new satellite uplink infrastructure for live sporting events, and an entirely new cable infrastructure to consume more bandwidth to deliver Full HD 3D content (where each eye sees a unique 1080p 3D image). And if you think consumers are reeling from the effects of a down economy, you don't want to sit in that meeting where you explain to a fatigued cable network or cable operator that after just completing a massive transition to HD, they now have to go 3DHD. Ouch.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a sucker for immersive video experiences as the next guy. In fact, I'm the nerd who has been obsessing about the biology of the human visual apparatus for 15 years now. You have no idea just how powerful 3D is in the right setting (massive screen, accompanied by surround sound). It has the ability to overwhelm the mind and manipulate our physical reactions (galvanic skin response, heart rate, adrenaline release, pupil dilation, even hormone release) on a level that nothing else can. And we humans have shown that we like such vicarious stimulation -- certainly it can't be Avatar's original storyline that's drawing us to spend so much money!

So I'm a believer in concept. I'm just realistic about how long it will take. If it took 10 years for HD to go from 1 home to reach more than half the US population, it will take 3D just as long. Which is an easy bet to make. The real trick is figuring out how long we languish in the low single digit millions. Is it three years or five? We have some advantage here in figuring this out, because we're sitting on literally millions of consumer surveys that tracked the last 12 years of consumer tech adoption, including DVD, Blu-ray, HDTV, iPods, Kindles, iPhones, and every other big change that people have eventually adopted. We'll add some survey work this year specifically on 3D and we'll have an answer for you -- one that accounts for consumer desire as well as consumer reality.

Comments

re: 3DTV at CES: Poking Holes in the Hype

At the risk of tooting my own horn, somebody did say it. Three days ago :)

http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/01/espn-to-launch-3d-network-in-june-usatodaycom/

re: 3DTV at CES: Poking Holes in the Hype

Great post John, sorry I didn't see it in time. My favorite line:

"The total absence of 3D equipment in US homes and the sketchiness of the sort of devices one might need — special set top box? 3D-capable TV sets? Funny-looking glasses? — is no barrier to entry, it would seem."

re: 3DTV at CES: Poking Holes in the Hype

Nice post, James. I had a similar -- if less detailed -- take in my column on Saturday.

http://www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton/ci_14152152?nclick_check=1

But I think you missed the one bit of content that may well prove to be the killer app for 3D: porn. Don't laugh: It was the killer app for VHS. You've got to believe the "adult entertainment" industry is looking closely at 3D.

re: 3DTV at CES: Poking Holes in the Hype

Troy, you couldn't be more right on this one. I have to admit, watching 3D bodies in Avatar was more, er, impressive, than one might have expected. I immediately recognized that the folks in the adult biz would jump on that one. Figuratively, I mean.

re: 3DTV at CES: Poking Holes in the Hype

With apologies to H. L. Mencken, no one ever went broke overestimating the stimulative impact of porn and gambling on new technology adoption.

re: 3DTV at CES: Poking Holes in the Hype

Great post, James, and spot on about what could be seen as another industry bubble. I was at a conference in 2008 when the home entertainment industry convinced itself that BluRay would be the saviour. The publication behind that event has since folded, and BluRay is still a very long way from being anything like a saviour. If anything 3D is less compelling than BluRay - at least HD is an enhanced experience, not a gimmick.

I agree that the potential lies in gaming (and probably adult content), not regular movies. Movie history nerds like me recall what happened to 3D in the 1950s when the film industry needed something to fend off the threat of TV. The answer was not, as it happened, The House of Wax in 3D. Truth is the movie industry survived, albeit as less important than it had been. 3D had very little to do with that.

I'm not being a cynic here - the 3D gaming demo I saw blew me away. And Avatar's success is clearly a huge deal. But there is not enough money to make 20 Avatars each year. But Call of Duty or GTA in 3D? That's when it gets interesting.