Format struggles to find its way into homes

3D TV has an image problem.

While 3D is doing blockbuster business at the megaplex, the format is struggling to find its way into the home since the first 3D TVs went on sale last summer.

Or at least that’s the impression hardware makers were eager to change heading into the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that wrapped up Sunday.

Companies like Samsung, which dominates the 3D TV biz with 70% of the market, admit that sales haven’t lived up to the hype, but are quick to stress that they’re far from failing in moving the flatscreens out of retailers’ doors.

More than 1 million 3D TVs sold in the U.S. in 2010, according to David Steel, senior VP of marketing for Samsung, surpassing the number of HD TVs that initially sold in their first year. Still, that’s far less than the 3 million units Samsung had initially projected.

Some early storm clouds had been expected, and the rollout of 3D TV has been consistent with most tech introductions: an initial surge of interest is followed by a holding pattern before a gradual increase over time occurs as it takes root with consumers. According to several electronics makers, the biz will be concerned if the negativity continues six months from now.

And if Nielsen’s report on the State of the U.S. Media Universe last week puts things into perspective, hardware makers have a lot of work still left to do to convince consumers to open their wallets.

The report revealed that 50% of consumers surveyed “definitely will not” purchase a 3D TV over the next 12 months. Only 3% said they would “definitely purchase” one, while another 3% put it at “probably.”

The main reasons for holding out have been the pricey pairs of active-shutter glasses (sold for around $150 or more) that can be cumbersome to wear, easy to break and require batteries that run out. At the same time, there hasn’t been much 3D content to watch on the new sets.

If CES is any indication, the electronics biz has been taking notes.

Samsung, in particular, wants to do away with the current glasses and brokered a deal with RealD to incorporate the company’s 3D projection technology directly into Samsung’s new 3D TV sets. Doing so means the free pairs of RealD glasses that moviegoers currently wear in theaters to watch a 3D film can also be used at home.

Samsung declined to disclose just when its new 3D TVs would reach retailers, but in the meantime, it is rolling out a new line of lighter 3D glasses that are designed for comfort and could help the company reach its sales target of 6 million 3D TVs this year.

Other rivals made similar moves, with LG introducing a new line of “Cinema 3D” 3D TVs that will use polarized glasses priced at around $20. The company’s 3D TVs will come bundled with four pairs of 3D eyewear, rather than just the one pair of active-shutter wear that first came with the sets.

Eventually, the same pair of passive glasses, that don’t require battery power to create the flicker of active-shutter lenses, could be used to watch 3D programming on TV sets made by any manufacturer.

Toshiba, meanwhile, continues to pursue the glasses-free 3D TV market, showing off larger versions of the flatscreens.

Toshiba isn’t alone in doing so, with Sony also touting such TVs, but those units are still three to five years away from hitting retail shelves, manufacturers say.

Still, any improvements with the glasses should eventually help retailers move more 3D TVs out the door.

Stores complain that demonstrating 3D TVs has been difficult so far because consumers have walked off with the expensive glasses or broken them. In other cases, a consumer may be using a pair of Samsung glasses to watch a Sony screen, the batteries in the glasses have died or their built-in wireless sensors are distracted by other devices nearby, making what’s on screen worthless to watch.

“Active glasses are just difficult to demonstrate at retail,” Bob Mayson, RealD’s prexy of consumer electronics, told Variety. “What may be fantastic in day one may be a dead demo in week two,” which ultimately doesn’t convert to sales.

“Consumers are charmed by 3D and they’re ready for it,” Mayson adds. “They want to walk into a store and put on a pair of glasses and get it the same way they walk into an AMC theater in Century City and put on a pair of glasses and get it.” “You won’t have a Super Bowl party with active eyewear. With passive eyewear you can buy a bag of glasses from Costco and be in business.”

The big selling point will be more entertainment, however.

Getting the broadcast networks to offer up more TV programming in HD helped sell those flatscreens, and more entertainment will make 3D TVs more appealing, as well.

Already, the major studios hope to release 100 3D films on their “Blu-ray 3D” line of discs by the end of the year. ESPN will launch its 3D sports channel on Valentine’s Day, while Sony partnered with Imax and Discovery Communications to launch a 3D docu channel, 3net, in the coming months. Every videogame company is developing 3D titles. And Verizon’s fiber-optic FiOS TV network can deliver full HD versions of 3D movies and TV shows to Panasonic’s Blu-ray 3D players. Other content providers are focused on high-profile fare like sports and concerts, because as long as 3D TV requires glasses, it will only be used for event programming, not casual viewing.It may be tough to broadcast the Super Bowl in full 3D, outside of relying on a conversion, however, given that too many seats in the stadium would have to be removed for the 3D cameras. Networks could use robotic and remote-controlled 3D cameras but those are still too new of technologies to rely on yet.

With 91 million HD TV sets now in consumers’ homes, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, Samsung, Panasonic and LG, among others are focused on helping them transition 2D broadcasts to 3D in real-time through converters. Improvements are still being made to make the visuals full 3D.

Either way, the electronics biz agrees that 3D TV is here to stay, so get used to it — especially if the unveilings at CES and the countless millions spent by companies to produce new lines of 3D hardware are any indicator.

“3D is far more than a science fiction gimmick” to highlight special effects, said Sony Corp. topper Howard Stringer during the company’s CES presser. “3D is merely a reflection of reality.”

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