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3-D TV is still an experiment

I understand there’s a lot of hype and promising sales predictions surrounding 3-D technology, but we all need to take a closer look at the real world for a moment.

Three-dimensional images, or what we popularly call “3-D,” has actually existed as a tiny niche in film technology for more than 120 years. These gimmicky films were always expensive to produce and usually required viewers to wear special glasses to see the effect.

That technology has emerged in fits and starts. 3-D films were especially prominent in the 1950s in American cinema, and later underwent a worldwide resurgence in the 1980s and ’90s driven mainly by giant-screen IMAX theaters.

It was derived from stereoscopic photography, a photographic technique used to record an image from two perspectives. Special projection hardware with eyewear is used to provide the illusion of depth when viewing the film.

A decade after the launch of digital HD video technology, the TV industry needed to create something new in the wake of falling display prices. They decided on 3-D HDTV. Helping propel the idea was the unprecedented success in 2009 of the 3-D motion picture “Avatar.”

With record box office sales, it appears the movie business is enamored with the technology. Distributing it to homes is another — harder to predict and currently impractical to implement — story.

Whether home viewers want or will buy 3-D displays so soon after purchasing new HDTV sets remains to be seen. Insight Media thinks the market will grow quickly, predicting sales of 3-D TVs to increase more than tenfold from about 3.4 million this year to 49.6 million by 2015. ISuppli, another marketing company, predicts sales of 78 million 3-D TV sets in 2015; it projects a market valued at $64.4 billion.

TV display manufacturers spent years sorting out standards, intellectual property and technology issues to settle on a common path for 3-D displays and Blu-ray Disc players for the home. At the CES trade show in January, all the top manufacturers showed 3-D TV sets and Blu-ray players and several, including those from Samsung and Panasonic, have already begun shipping.

At the Samsung Experience showroom at the Time Warner Center, in New York City, which includes a dozen large-screen 3-D sets in a special 3-D viewing room, Samsung executives said they expect to sell 2 million 3-D sets (worldwide) this year. The sets will cost between $2000 and $6000 for 46in and 55in models, respectively. Industry experts predict prices will fall below $1000 by 2015. That was the “sweet spot” for HDTVs.

With significant financial backing from CE manufacturers, ESPN, DirecTV and Discovery have all announced they will launch 3-D programming services this year. ESPN’s will be during the World Cup Soccer tournament in June, “broadcasting” to select theaters across the U.S. Sporting events and motion pictures are expected to be the prime sources of 3-D programming for some time to come.

Despite all the industry hype, however, 3-D sets are not yet in American homes. The move from HDTV to 3-D TV is also an unnatural one for most consumers, unlike the switch from analog TV to HDTV. Current technology requires home viewers to wear special glasses, which can be a major inconvenience. In addition, some human perception experts argue that 3-D requires viewers to focus and compensate their perception in unnatural ways — some get nauseous, some don’t.

So far, 3-D has been viewed only in small doses. I personally witnessed several sporting events and found the images compelling, but the production values lacking. Whether the trend will catch on in homes is anyone’s guess. As HDTV sales begin to wane, the consumer electronics industry is betting on it. With more than 19 movies on tap to be shown in 3-D this year, the motion picture industry is betting on it as well.

For me, 3-D is still a science project, a lab experiment in search of a real-world application, that is, a way to sell more electronics and packaged media (e.g., Blu-ray Discs).

Stay tuned to this blog, as we continue to investigate the trends and make sense of the practicality of 3-D technology. If you get a headache, just take off the glasses.