Entelligence: 3D may fall flat

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

The big theme that stood out for me last week at IFA was the idea of 3D driving sales of new TVs. Both Sony and Panasonic made strong plays for 3D at their press conferences, although Sony did a much better job, giving the audience 3D glasses and showing the trailer for "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" along with footage of FIFA Soccer and Gran Turismo running on the PS3 -- the cockpit view in GT was particularly impressive. Panasonic's presentation was a little odder, with the audience being asked to "imagine" what 3D would look like during a slideshow of still images of various events like boxing matches. It was kind of like introducing color TV by showing off a black and white screen and asking the audience to imagine it in color.

I understand the need to drive new sales of TV sets and find some sort of purchase driver. Let's face it. Screens have gotten large enough, perhaps even too large -- if I offered you a 150-inch TV, where would you put it? Resolutions have maxed out and it's hard to make sets much thinner. OLED displays could be a great purchase driver but are a few years off. So something new needs to drive the market. I'm just not convinced that 3D will really help move things forward.

The problem is there's a huge difficulty involved in launching new formats, especially one like 3D. We've seen this time and again. First, you need broad hardware support, and 3D doesn't have it. Sony and Panasonic are taking two different approaches to the 3D market, meaning they'll both be selling incompatible equipment at high price points -- yep, another format war is brewing, and consumers just love when that happens. It's one reason why vendors like Philips are staying out of 3D for the time being.

Second, you need deep content support. At the moment, there's far more content available on good old HD than there will be in either 3D format and that's not going to change very fast. Unless you're a really big fan of a particular title that's available in 3D, you're likely to sit this out for a while.

Third, you need a clear and visible consumer value proposition. CDs and DVDs both offered obvious value propositions to consumers. There was a noticeable difference in the experience that was easily grasped, and both were marked by moving from an analog tape format to optical disk, which was more reliable and offered novel features such as random access to content. What's more, both offered clear quality improvements over what had come before -- except to my six friends who still swear by their vinyl LPs and tube amps [and your editor! -- ed.], the upgrade in quality was far more than just noticeable. But when I look at the best content on 3D it just doesn't offer that much more relative to standard HD, especially on smaller screens in regular homes. On top of that, 3D in movie theaters is still mostly a gimmick, and the content that we've seen to date doesn't quite have a compelling feel to it.

With cheap HDTVs and plenty of HD content, the savvy consumer who holds off on a 3D purchase is clearly going to be the winner in 2010 -- and consumers who've already invested in HD screens over the last few years are not likely to upgrade. In the long run, there may be no winner. The last time two formats fought a battle like this over incremental quality was in the audio arena, when it was SACD against DVD-Audio, and both sides lost to the convenience of less-than-CD-quality MP3s and the iPod. In this case, while we wait for large OLED screens to come to market, these efforts in 3D may just fall flat.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at, and he can be emailed at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.