They did it again. Really. The video companies, in a disorganized rush to launch their “next new thing” concept in 3D, predictably forgot to work together to agree to a standard that was meaningful and mindful of the consumer. Does this story sound familiar? It wasn’t that long ago that HDMI launched as a complete screw up of a format with more than a dozen updates to a copy protected home theater protocol that hosed consumers over and over. Remember Blu-ray and HD DVD just only a few years ago? Hollywood studios couldn’t decide on a format to release movies in HD so they had a format war that in the end, the biggest loser was the consumer.
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Enter 3D and it now looks like we have another format or compatibility problem on our hands. 3D came to market as an active format, meaning one needs to wear powered, $149 per pair glasses in order to see the content pop from the screen. A good percentage of Americans don’t spend $149 on prescription glasses, thus didn’t understand why they needed pair after pair of glasses to watch content in 3D. Many people just said no to 3D for this reason alone. To confuse matters even more in the world of 3D – not each pair of glasses actually works on each HDTV set. Imagine Joe Consumer buys a 3D set from one brand for the bedroom and another for the living room; thus 4 pairs of standard glasses. In most cases the glasses from one set would be incompatible with the other set, thus leaving the consumer out of luck again if, for example, the kids invited a friend or two over to watch Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs on 3D Blu-ray for the twenty forth time.
But things have gotten even better in the last few weeks as the big box retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco and Best Buy have been blowing out all of the HDTV inventory to make room for passive 3D HDTVs. That’s right – the video companies like Vizio and LG have changed the rules of the game again. Now 3D HDTVs can work with the non-active glasses (like the ones you might now swipe from the movie theater) or with some versions of active glasses (but not both formats). Prices on these new sets are quite low especially from Vizio (review pending on their new 42 inch LCD passive 3D HDTV), which will speak to consumers looking to get into 3D today – but many problems still remain. Even the biggest flat HDTVs don’t typically offer a big enough screen to provide an immersive HDTV experience; only front projectors do that. Not everyone has the excellent eyesight needed to enjoy 3D. The volume of content on 3D is woefully small with most of the movies on 3D Blu-ray not made like Avatar. The effect is cheesy at best and consumers are not wowed by what they get for their extra money.
The most disturbing and potentially damaging issue about 3D is the fact that for the third time in the past 10 years consumers who bought early have been hosed again. People remember the VHS versus Beta format war and are still angry about it. While most people have adopted Blu-ray as the silver disc of choice for HD home theater – they also worry about getting worked over by another format. The same goes with their AV receiver and/or preamp, which can easily drop from thousands of dollars to worthless with one new technology, input or codex coming out in the market.
The legacy of 3D isn’t going to be a pretty one. Consumers aren’t blown away by the way the effect looks in any way that resembles the way they reacted to HDTV. The housing market that allowed people to borrow from the equity of their homes in the mid-2000s is now a distant memory as video companies sell HDTVs alongside 24-packs of toilet paper and Diet Cokes as opposed to being sold by specialty stores. In the end, 3D is likely to become an add-on feature for top HDTVs, for those who want to watch it with active or passive glasses – but more importantly consumers will cite 3D as yet another reason not to buy a new AV technology or to invest in high end audio or video when the next, more meaningful technology comes along. You simply cannot burn consumers like this over and over. They have a long memory and a decreasing willingness to dip into their pockets to buy the next new home theater product.