Consumers not ready for 3-D TV

TV makers have naturally been talking up 3-D TV whenever they can because it creates a new top-end market for boxes at a time when prices of existing HD-ready stock continues to plummet. Vendors of network infrastructure equipment rather like 3-D as well because it will eat up bandwidth and boost demand for their products in the access network, content distribution networks and in fiber-based cores. But, operators are more ambivalent, because they are not convinced that consumers are taking to 3-D in the way they did to HDTV, which delivered a significant improvement in picture quality for emerging larger-screen displays. Furthermore, the only undesirable side effect of HD was a dent in consumers’ pockets, while 3-D can give viewers a headache.

The real problem is that 3-D TV in its current form is really a trick on the human visual cortex, presenting each eye with an offset version of each image point. The brain then assembles the two halves to create a 3-D image, just as it does with the binocular input from each eye when actually looking at the world rather than a TV or cinema screen. The difference is that when viewing the real world, the offset is created by the different viewing angles of each eye, rather than through different streams through eyepieces or via offset picture elements on a screen, in the case of emerging glassesless 3-D technologies. Either way, the processing required by the visual cortex is slightly different from the real world, and this can cause physical problems for some people.

The technology will improve, but meanwhile, companies are coming to the conclusion that 3-D will be an occasional rather than continuous viewing experience, even if the need for goggles ends. This mood has been reflected at recent exhibitions, including the 2011 NAB Show, where past euphoria about 3-D’s prospects had all but evaporated.

This is far from the end for 3-D, however. It just means that growth in services and sales of 3-D-capable TVs will be slower than expected with gentle boosts as new technology arrives. There is the realization that 3-D TV is as much an evolution as a revolution and will emerge gradually as technology improves. In terms of consumer demand, recent feedback from some major European operators offers some hope, revealing that people are interested in viewing different types of programs in 3-D stereo, including dramas, concerts and live shows as well as sports and blockbuster movies.

In a technical sense, however, the emerging displays without goggles will water down the 3-D experience, which is really only 2.5-D in the first place. To provide a wide field of 3-D viewing, 3-D TV sets will have to incorporate larger numbers of smaller offset picture elements, which means that the 3-D effect will be weakened. Ultimately, if every pixel was a 3-D element, it would look just like a normal 2-D screen. There is some doubt, therefore, about how successful 3-D without goggles will prove on large screens. It may be more successful on smaller devices the size of iPads, where wide field of vision is not required because viewing is on a one-to-one basis from a position right in front of the screen.