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Switched On: The two sides of 3DTV


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Without a doubt, 3D was the keystone feature touted by every major TV and Blu-ray player manufacturer at CES 2010. But the 3D technology we'll see this year asks more of consumers than previous reinventions. As with HD, they will need new TVs, new video sources, and optimized content like Avatar to make the experience worthwhile.

But consumers will also likely need glasses -- and not particularly fashionable glasses -- to experience the 3D effect. It's a lot to ask customers, given just-completed 10-year transition to digital and high-definition television. Compare that to the roughly 30-year gap that separated the mainstream arrival of color and the first HDTV in the U.S.

It also remains to be seen how strong of a marketing push major electronics companies will put behind 3D. The shift to HD was aided by a government mandate that coincided with the shift from over-the-air analog broadcasts to digital broadcasts. And before there was much HD content on television, consumers embraced the dramatic form-factor shift from CRT to flat-panel televisions -- HD often just came along for the ride.

Major brands are eager to generate excitement for 3D, so they can command a premium and escape the spiral of commoditization. 3D is the highest priority for the Blu-ray camp in 2010. And even if 3D's chief backers make a strong push for a few years, they may shift attention away from 3D as OLED becomes more viable. OLED can improve the display of all content, not just a small sample of it.

It's unclear whether 3D can truly become the third great TV revolution on par with HD -- but perhaps it doesn't have to.

Speaking of content, sports and movies are two important genres that can help drive adoption of 3D, just as they did with HD, although shooting live sports in 3D may be even more challenging than it was in the early days of HD. But 3D can't help everything. Even movies that are decades old -- for example, Blu-ray releases of Disney animated classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves -- look great when transferred HD. In contrast, it is difficult to recreate a 2D movie in 3D. (Exceptions include computer-rendered animated films such as the early Toy Story movies from Pixar.) Remember Ted Turner's experiments in colorizing black-and-white movies?

For these and other reasons, it's unclear whether 3D can truly become the third great TV revolution on par with HD -- but perhaps it doesn't have to. In the shorter term, at least, 3D could reach sustainable penetration level similar to other higher-end technologies like LED backlighting, high refresh rates, and internet connectivity have.

Like many other higher-end features, 3D will simply be part of a feature set that will attract buyers regardless of its inclusion. And as we've seen with these other high-end features, consumers are likely to opt for them as the cost comes down and the price difference between equipped and non-equipped models dwindles. That may never reach the difference between the price of a movie ticket to see a 3D versus a 2D movie, but it could soon reach the point where consumers are willing to experience the "right" content.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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