At CES 2012, you couldn’t move for 3DTVs, ugly polarising spectacles, and – because the viewer at home can’t take part in the awesomeness that is 3D – those awful, it’s-so-real-it’s-bursting-out-of-the-screen posters (see the image below). At IFA – the big, mid-year consumer electronics event in Berlin – it was clear that 3DTV was on its way out. Today, at CES 2013, 3DTV is dead, or so it would seem.
Sure, there’s still some 3D tech on display at CES if you look for it, but the emphasis has now shifted to high resolution 4K displays, OLED, image quality, and “smart” functionality. In short, Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, and Panasonic have now decided to focus on actually improving their television technology. After three years of pushing and peddling 3DTVs that are virtually devoid of any actual technological innovation, this is rather refreshing.
To the objective, cynical observer, 3DTV has always come across as a fad fabricated by TV makers and Hollywood to sell more TVs and Blu-ray discs. With box office takings and DVD sales flagging, and LCD HDTVs reaching saturation point, TV makers and Hollywood (understandably) decided that something had to change.
3D was the perfect choice: It’s incredibly low-tech, but also a very strong differentiator. It took almost no effort on behalf of TV makers and production companies to make the jump to 3D, and yet consumers were forced to buy expensive, brand new TVs to enjoy the new content – or, if you couldn’t afford a 3DTV, you finally had a reason to go to the cinema.
The missing link, of course, was actually convincing consumers that they wanted 3D content – that 3D content was inherently better than 2D – and also that it’s worth spending £1,000 or so on a new 3DTV. What followed was a massive marketing push, a lot of sexy 3DTVs, a slew of 3D movies (including re-releases of blockbusters such as Titanic), and the emergence of 3DTV channels.
Despite all that, though, the growth of 3DTV has been slow. Most estimates peg 3DTV at just 20 to 30 per cent market penetration, as of the end of 2012 – and even then, there’s no telling whether those TVs are being used for 3D, or if they were simply purchased due to feature creep and/or consumer ignorance.
And now, with Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, and LG barely mentioning 3DTVs at their CES presentations or in their CES booths, it would seem that the 3D fad is finally over. That isn’t to say that 3DTV won’t stagger onward for a little longer – but it has certainly lost its place as the next big thing. Whereas its predecessor, HDTV, took the world by storm, 3D simply failed to gain traction. It will now be replaced by 4K, 8K, OLED, and other technologies that actually push the envelope of content creation and consumption.
It will be interesting to see how Hollywood reacts to this shift away from 3D. Hollywood, being the ancient, bureaucratic, litigious behemoth that it is, moves a lot slower than the technology industry; now that it’s on the 3D bandwagon, it won’t easily give it up. This could be an issue because, while cinema still accounts for a large proportion of the movie industry’s revenue, it makes little sense to create 3D movies if they can’t also be watched at home on Blu-ray disc or Netflix.
One possibility is that 3DTV tech will eventually become a commodity – 3D will just be another bullet point on the box, alongside HDMI and HDTV. In that case, it won’t really matter what format a TV show, movie, or game comes in – as long as you don’t mind wearing some 3D glasses.
Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the allure of glasses-free 3D, if a cheap and graceful solution ever finds its way to market. In other domains, too, such as smartphones and PCs, 3D is still finding its feet – it’s possible that 3D could be saved by next-generation computers and consoles, but unlikely.