Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.
For a technology that has been widely classified as dead, 3D TV still appears to have some life left. Sure, stereoscopic 3D is not the widely accepted, mainstream home entertainment feature that's helping to drive U.S. TV sales, as some people had incorrectly (and foolishly) predicted it would be. However, if you take a trip to most consumer electronics stores today, you will still see 3D included as a feature in some of this year's TV and Blu-ray player models. Sure, the salespeople may not be stressing 3D as one of a TV's most significant features, as they would have a few short years ago. And sure, those manufacturers that still support 3D aren't necessarily focusing on it as one of the top selling points for their TVs, as they did for a relatively brief span of time a few years back. The retailers and manufacturers now have Ultra HD to tout...and, based on what I've heard from both retailers and manufacturers, higher resolution is an easier sell than 3D.
Nevertheless, 3D still has the support of major manufacturers like Sony, LG, and Samsung. (Others, like Vizio and Sharp, have eliminated 3D capability from their newest TV models.) Sony continues to support 3D because "for some customers it is a valuable feature and enhances the viewer experience," said Phil Jones, the company's product information manager. A "large portion" of Sony's 1080p and 4K TV lineups for this year supports 3D, about the same percentage as last year, he told us.
LG Electronics continues to see 3D as a "cool feature" for TVs, and it's included in the company's more premium TV series this year, said Tim Alessi, its director of new product development. The "only major change" in LG's 3D TV strategy for this year is that the only 3D-capable 1080p set is the curved EC9300 OLED 1080p HD model. All of LG's 3D LCD TVs are now Ultra HD. The reason for the change in strategy was that, with "more and more Ultra HD sets now coming on the market at lower price points, the pricing for full HD has been under a lot of pressure," Alessi explained. Therefore, "adding step-up features is tough to do" while maintaining competitiveness with rivals' full HD TVs. "Plus, anybody who is looking for step-up features like 3D is tending to gravitate toward a step-up model like a UHD these days anyway," he added.
LG continues to be a proponent of passive 3D--what it refers to as Cinema 3D. One big reason why LG is supporting 3D on its midrange and higher-end Ultra HD TVs this year is that passive 3D "really lends itself perfectly to Ultra HD because you get a full HD experience with 3D, even with the separation of the lines to the left and right eye," he said. In the past, the "one knock that some people gave" passive 3D was that "you were getting half resolution because you were taking a 1080p signal and splitting it in half," he conceded. But that has changed with Ultra HD because, "even splitting it in half, you're still getting a full HD experience to each eye, so that objection, or that shortcoming if you will, is gone," he said. "Hopefully as more people experience it, they'll be driven to consume even more 3D content and do it on an LG set," he said.
Neither Alessi nor Jones would classify 3D TV as dead. "Some customers still value 3D and use the feature. We still get questions from customers all the time about our 3D capabilities," said Jones.
Meanwhile, if you take a trip to a Best Buy store today, you will still likely find plenty of old and new 3D Blu-ray movies from all of the main Hollywood studios, despite the fact that the retailer has cut back on the total amount of shelf space dedicated to optical disc entertainment in general. On my trip to the Westbury, New York, Best Buy on July 14, there remained a small section of its Blu-ray offerings specifically devoted to 3D, and I counted close to 30 separate 3D titles there. As is typically the case now with all movie and music discs (be they Blu-ray, DVD, or CD), there are many more 3D Blu-ray titles available through Best Buy's website than are on its store shelves...and those 3D offerings are not just from the large Hollywood studios. There is a similarly large number of 3D Blu-ray offerings still available through Amazon.com.
There are a few logical reasons for that continued support of 3D Blu-ray titles. Movies continue to be released in 3D by the Hollywood studios in large numbers, moviegoers continue to see many of those 3D movies in huge numbers, and at least some of those moviegoers (myself included) don't mind buying and watching at least a small number of those movies in 3D Blu-ray in an effort to come as close as possible to duplicating the theatrical experience on their home entertainment systems.
For now anyway, 3D Blu-ray doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but will that still be the case as we transition to Ultra HD Blu-ray? The 3D format had yet another setback when the official Ultra HD Blu-ray specification was released, and support for 4K 3D was not part of it. Native Ultra HD 3D isn't in the new specification for a simple reason: "The format doesn't exist" said Dan Schinasi, senior manager-product planning at Samsung Electronics America and also U.S.A. promotions chairman at the Blu-ray Disc Association. However, Schinasi did add, "One thing to keep in mind--although BDA has finalized their specs, it's an evolving spec. There's spec maintenance, and specs can evolve" over time. That's what allowed 3D to be added to the original Blu-ray specification to begin with. As of now, the spec also only includes 4K resolution, not 8K--despite the fact that some TV makers are already showing prototypes for 8K sets. An evolving spec would leave the door open for native 3D Ultra HD Blu-ray and 8K support down the road.
It's also worth pointing out that the absence of native 4K 3D support in the spec doesn't mean the complete absence of 3D support. The Ultra HD Blu-ray specification mandates that all new Ultra HD Blu-ray players be capable of playing back current Blu-ray Discs. It will be up to each hardware maker if they want to include support in each Ultra HD Blu-ray player for 3D Blu-ray, said Schinasi. In the case of Samsung, at least its initial Ultra HD Blu-ray player will include 3D Blu-ray support, he said.
Similarly, it will be up to each Hollywood studio if they want to include a 3D Blu-ray version of a movie in the same package as the 2D Ultra HD Blu-ray version--via a second disc, for example. Complicating that is the fact that certain studios have continued to include a DVD version of movies in the same packages as the Blu-ray versions of those films.
Of course, just because the Hollywood studios are continuing to support 3D Blu-ray now, that does not mean they will continue to do so in the future, especially as they shift over to Ultra HD Blu-ray. Most of the main Hollywood studios didn't respond to requests for comment on their plans, but Warner Home Video spokesman Jim Noonan told us that his company "will make the decision" on whether to support 3D on future Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs "on a title by title basis." He said, "There will be a number of factors involved in the decision, including our own proprietary research."
For now, it would seem to be counterintuitive for the major Hollywood studios to pull back on support of 3D Blu-ray, especially if many of their biggest theatrical hits continue to be 3D titles. In 2015 alone, that includes Universal's Jurassic World, Disney's Avengers: Age of Ultron and Inside Out, Paramount's The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, and Warner's Mad Max: Fury Road. What support the Hollywood studios will provide for 3D will likely start becoming clearer later this year and in 2016, after the Ultra HD Blu-ray launch.
Meanwhile, there also continues to be a small amount of 3D content available through certain TV services. On Cablevision's Optimum Online, for instance, viewers can watch several movies in 3D via HBO on demand.
Granted, most U.S. consumers have, by and large, rejected 3D home entertainment for TV and video games, and they have done so for several reasons that you have, no doubt, heard countless times before. There wasn't enough content, for one thing. Also, the TV makers, studios, and retailers didn't do a great job marketing and selling 3D to the U.S. public. The TV makers compounded that problem by creating another stupid format war, this time between active-shutter and passive technologies, and confusing the hell out of consumers who were already confused enough, in at least some cases, to think that if they bought a 3D TV they would only be able to watch 3D content. The latter was, after all, a truly frightening concept even to 3D proponents. Who wants to watch the news or a reality TV show in 3D, with or without glasses?
That brings us to the most obvious reason why many continue to believe 3D TV failed to catch on in the U.S.: most people did not want to wear glasses to watch 3D on TV at home. Most TV viewers, especially younger ones, are now using multiple screens and devices while they watch TV, and the TV is often on while people are doing other things. Of course, 3D glasses don't lend themselves to such TV usage scenarios.
For those reasons, the future of glasses-based 3D TV is pretty dim in the U.S., even if it continues to fare pretty well in several other countries, including China, said Chris Chinnock, president of display intelligence company Insight Media. One reason why 3D TV fared better in China and several other countries is that their transitions to digital TV happened later than it did in the U.S., he said. "We all went out and bought new TVs over the last 10 years or so" in the U.S., then the TV manufacturers came along and tried to push 3D TV as something that consumers needed to have right away, even though there wasn't a whole lot of content for it, he said. In stark contrast, the digital TV transition came later in China and many other countries, closer to the introduction of 3D, so many consumers wound up getting 3D bundled with the first HDTVs they bought, he said. There also wasn't as much of a format war in other countries, where passive 3D became the de facto standard. One of several things in passive 3D's favor all along was that owners of passive 3D TVs could just use the same 3D glasses they received at the movie theater.
Glasses-free 3D TV, meanwhile, continues to hold some promise--although it probably won't be the kind that's been most widely demonstrated by several companies in recent years at CES. Companies using the most widely used glasses-free 3D techniques--lenticular and parallax barrier--have made improvements, said Chinnock, but the biggest issue with such 3D TV techniques remains the narrow sweet spots on them. Typically, when the user ventures far beyond one small area of viewing, the 3D effect is completely lost, making it problematic for even one person to view 3D content on such a TV, let alone multiple people.
The companies supporting those glasses-free techniques have "gotten much better in widening that sweet spot and smoothing the transitions from viewing zone to viewing zone," said Chinnock. "But the reality is, if you move your head or walk past it, you still see this swimming image that's just very distracting and annoying." He predicted that even the companies offering the best implementations of those techniques, including Dimenco and Stream TV, will only get "some minimal penetration," which will be mostly in Asian countries. "I personally think all of these lenticular and parallax barrier techniques are a dead-end," he said. "You can make certain improvements, but you're just never going to get there with this technology" when it comes to display devices designed for multiple viewers, including consumer 3D TVs. It's only a "reasonable solution for a single viewer if you have eye-tracking capability," he said, pointing to casino gaming machines as one good application for that.
It is instead other autostereoscopic technologies, such as light field or electronic holography, that offer much more viable solutions for glasses-free 3D TVs, said Chinnock. These technologies offer much larger viewing areas for users to experience 3D, but they don't come cheap. A few companies, including Ostendo and Zebra Imaging (both light-field technology supporters) and SeeReal Technologies (electronic holography), have demonstrated the improved glasses-free 3D techniques, and some products are already available on the market for commercial uses, Chinnock explained.
But consumer glasses-free 3D TVs using light field and electronic holography are "still a ways off," said Chinnock. The technologies are "expensive and more commercially oriented at this point," he said. "They also have a very fundamental problem in that they're pixel-starved." They use a lot of pixels to create their multiple views for each eye, so there is a "big reduction in the final resolution of the image compared to the native resolution of the panels or the projectors" in devices that use them, he explained. Therefore, to make the techniques "viable for a TV, you've really got to have a lot of cheap pixels."
"Even an 8K display is kind of almost marginal for a light-field display," said Chinnock. "Tens of megapixels [are] more than likely what you need," he said, predicting that consumer 3D TVs using such technology are "at least 10 years away."
When the TV industry moves to 8K TVs, it's possible that TV makers who dropped their 3D support or never supported it may reconsider their positions. Although Sharp officially dropped 3D for its 2015 TV line, the company will continue to "evaluate" 3D, a spokeswoman said. The company demonstrated 8K TV as a future product at CES in January, but declined to specify when we should expect to see a Sharp 8K TV on the market. "When you see 8K, 3D is interesting," said Peter Weedfald, Sharp's senior vice president of sales.
In the meantime, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality present additional ways for 3D TV, along with 3D home entertainment in general, to survive. Proponents of 3D, including executives at Sony and ESPN, had hoped a few years back that videogames would present another way for stereoscopic 3D to become popular, but it didn't take long for the 3D videogame effort to fail after it received a mixed response among the major videogame publishers. Even one-time proponents of 3D, including French publisher Ubisoft, backed off from their once-aggressive plans after consumers expressed little interest in playing 3D games. Despite sister companies Sony Electronics and Sony Pictures continuing to support 3D, Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) didn't even include 3D support in the PlayStation 4 at the console's 2013 launch.
On the other hand, there is "tremendous interest" in VR headsets from several major companies, said Chinnock. Those companies include Facebook, which bought VR headset maker Oculus Rift last year, and SCE, with its Project Morpheus headset for the PlayStation 4 (shown here).
At the same time, we are seeing a growing number of cameras being developed to capture 180- and 360-degree content for the VR headsets, said Chinnock. Content for the VR headsets is being captured in 2D and 3D, but the 3D content is "far more compelling if done well, and you have this immersive 360-degree 3D experience," he said. It's still the early days for VR, but "three to five years down the road, I would not be surprised to see 360-degree 3D content a mainstream technology" for gaming and other entertainment, he said. That will be driven by the fact that the major players are "putting tons of money" into the development of VR, he said.
Stereoscopic 3D "comes back" to home entertainment "through the back door, in VR, in other words," said Chinnock. Although 3D TV--with or without glasses--is not likely to gain much traction in the U.S. over the next three to five years, 3D will likely "creep back into the home with the VR headset and maybe with light field and holographic solutions in the longer time frame," he said.
So, it is likely that 3D TV in one form or another isn't going to disappear anytime soon...unless Hollywood studios stop making movies in 3D for theatrical release (not likely), they and all TV makers completely drop all support for 3D in the home (not likely, although more possible), all the glasses-free TV technologies go absolutely nowhere (possible, but not likely), and VR fails to catch on with the public. The latter is certainly a possibility. After all, if consumers were reluctant to wear lightweight glasses to watch TV in their homes, there is no guarantee that those same people will be willing to wear a heavier headset.
However, some of the factors in VR's favor, in addition to the deep pockets of some of the companies supporting it, include the fact that it's not being rammed down consumers' throats in the same way that 3D TVs were. VR is also being designed for very targeted content and applications, at least for now. It would probably be best to keep it that way. Those companies supporting VR might also be wise to heed the lessons of 3D TV by tempering their expectations.
• Audio Overshadows Video at CE Week Show at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Visit our Flat HDTVs category page for reviews of 3D-capable TVs.
• The Smart TV Is Getting Smarter, But Can It Keep Up? at HomeTheaterReview.com.