Who will surf 3D TV?

If history has the answer, look to porn, vidgames

Ah, Grammy night. The excitement. The pageantry. The extraordinarily lame 3D Michael Jackson tribute using crappy cardboard glasses, like the red-blue ones we picked up when a local TV station would do a similar stunt decades ago.

Enthusiasm for 3D television has taken off in just the last few months, with such heavy hitters as Discovery, Sony and ESPN announcing commitments to advance the form with new channels or ventures. The explosive box office success of “Avatar” has doubtless fueled some of the new-found belief that 3D TV’s time has finally come.

The only thing lacking, at this point, is much concrete evidence that the public is onboard as well.

Indeed, most articles about 3D TV still begin with questions, as in, “Will sports fans watch games on ESPN in 3D?” or “Will porn drive 3D’s success?” More on that latter point shortly, but when writing about dry technology, it’s advisable to tease early when porn will be part of the conversation.

Thus far, the research remains sketchy. A 2009 survey by the Consumer Electronics Assn. and USC’s Entertainment and Technology Center found one in six consumers “are interested in watching 3D movies or television shows in their home” — which sounds encouraging enough — while 14% expressed interest in 3D video games.” Yet another study last month by Opinion Research Corp. concluded that 3D TV “isn’t much of a blip on consumers’ buying radars” yet, with only 5% of respondents saying they intend to buy a 3D set in the next few years.

It’s difficult to know whom to trust, because many of those pushing new technologies have dogs in the fight. As Fortune columnist Stanley Bing mused after visiting the Consumer Electronics Show (most likely in his poorly concealed guise as a highly paid network PR exec), “What would drive you to watch a 3D program? I don’t really believe the electronics industry is asking these questions. They’re moving full steam ahead because in the past, technology has eventually triumphed over inertia.”

From a layman’s perspective, it seems likely that viewing of 3D on a TV monitor will at least initially be driven by the two usual culprits when it comes to high-tech gadgetry: Videogames and pornography. Both would seem to benefit from an enhanced role-playing experience, which is more significant to those more interactive pursuits than when passively watching entertainment, news or even sports.

Admittedly, any such discussion about greater immersion in games or porn fosters a rather unappetizing image of young men sitting alone in living rooms sounding like Beavis and Butt-head, but let’s face it, without “Star Trek” and porn, the Internet wouldn’t have gotten off the ground nearly as fast, either.

The problem is that theaters are selling 3D at a premium because it’s an experience, not necessarily a way of life. People watch TV differently — pausing, channel surfing, going to the bathroom — which alters that dynamic, no matter how much the sets improve and the cost diminishes, as they inevitably will.

Even so, big companies are making sizable bets that 3D will represent a major part of their arsenal — that people will eagerly buy the sets to watch Ohio State vs. Michigan, movies like “Up” or the Discovery nature documentary “Life,” not strictly to play Halo or feel a bit, ahem, closer to the stars of “This Ain’t Gilligan’s Island XXX” and “The Devil Wears Nada.”

High-definition television caught on rapidly, especially as pricing came down. The main difference there is that the advantages are more obvious — bigger screens, greater clarity — unlike innovations such as digital video recorders, which have been slower to spread because consumers must be sold on the fact they really need one. Whether 3D falls into the first camp or the latter, finally, will decide if the technology becomes ubiquitous or merely another niche for a dedicated few.

Given the surge of high hopes surrounding 3D, the push to make TV pop is clearly one of the next technological frontiers. Just don’t be surprised when the smoke clears to see that everything — except perhaps the picture — looks rather disappointingly flat compared with the current hoopla.

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