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3D TV: Not Dead Yet, and Getting Better

Though the oft-maligned tech seemed doomed, TV makers are focusing on a glasses-free model

Vizio’s announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show last week that it was dropping 3D support from its future TVs was taken by many as a death knell for 3D television.

But in truth, 3D TV is like the ailing old man in the “Bring out your dead” scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who protests to the corpse collector, “I’m not dead. … I’m getting better.”

And so it is with 3D TV: It’s not dead, and it is getting better. 3D TVs were actually quite in evidence on the CES floor, though they’re no longer hyped. Several TV makers have concluded that there is no point even trying to promote 3D TV with glasses. They are focusing on autostereo (glasses-free 3D) TV, which continues to improve.

Vizio has moved away from 3D based on glasses and redirected all of its development effort on glasses-free 3D, according to the company’s chief technology officer, Matt McRae.

“Vizio believes consumers enjoy 3D content, but the living room is a very different environment than a movie theater,” he said.

The days when 3D looked like the Next Big Thing are over. Nobody thinks the current generation of 3D TV tech will ever generate enough consumer excitement to trigger a new upgrade cycle — which is what the TV makers want.

“In our opinion, expectations of what the 3D TV experience should be have to be reset, especially with consumers and retailers,” said Nicholas Routhier, president and CEO of Sensio, which offers the 3D GO streaming service. “In its early days, 3D TV was greatly overhyped and there were unreasonable expectations that people would be watching all 3D all the time. Perception being reality, many judged 3D TV as a failure when 3D broadcast did not materialize.”

Routhier believes that for the next few years, 3D television will be about 3D movies, “an every-once-in-a-while premium experience.”

Yet as Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Assn., noted in his pre-show CES Trends to Watch presentation, consumers may yet embrace 3D TV. “The deployment has been there,” he said. “Now, usage isn’t necessarily there. But again, some of that takes time.

Routhier warns “If nothing changes, 3D TV usage will remain low, not because of lack of interest but rather because of lack of content awareness,” adding many consumers don’t know their TVs are 3D.

Vizio was not alone showcasing autostereo. Sharp had what may have been the most imposing autostereo screen at the show: an 80” prototype using an 8K panel. The extra pixels provide a very sharp image in 3D.

Samsung was showing a prototype autostereo TV using a UHD screen, not as big as Sharp’s but larger than Vizio’s. Dolby (which provides some of the tech Vizio is using) is showing an autostereo TV built on a 4K UHD panel. Hisense showed a 55” autostereo prototype that got good reviews.

LG, the main remaining manufacturer of TVs using passive glasses, hasn’t given up on 3D tech, either.

But the 3DTV market will need time. McRae said Vizio’s autostereo tech is probably a couple of years from being market-ready. The image is still too dark and doesn’t have as much 3D depth as the company would like, and the components need to come down in cost. But McRae said those issues are being taken into account. “Vizio feedback from retailers was very positive, not least because without glasses, 3D TV is much easier to show at retail,” he noted.

Routhier said that since August, 3D GO has come bundled on Vizio’s 3D TVs, and with no special promotion, the attachment rate among Vizio customers has been greater than expected: Around 20% among Vizio TV owners who attach their sets to the Internet.

He envisions the audience eventually branching out beyond movies to other kinds of 3D content, such as sports. “Once we get to that point,” he said, “critical mass will have been reached and 3D will become mainstream.”

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