Medical experts say it can be a painful experience for one out of four people who will suffer eyestrain, queasiness and headaches. Manufacturers concede it can cause "motion sickness, perpetual after-effects, disorientation, eye strain and decreased postural stability (people can fall down during the experience)." You need strange equipment to make it happen. And you need to shell out big bucks.
And yet 3DTV will likely be a big story--perhaps a success, perhaps a failure, but a tale to tell--as the American TV experience transforms yet again this year. How service providers, content providers and device manufacturers handle the challenges, and how much effort they make to cause the market to grow, will be an ongoing story through the rest of this year and perhaps through the rest of the decade.
"In the end, the essence of 3DTV is about meaningfully engaging an audience. 3DTV, or any technology for that matter, will never be a substitute for mediocrity or a solution to fix bad creative," said Jay Giesen, executive creative director at Brunner, a full-service advertising agency that aims at using the latest technology to deliver its clients messages.
Despite what consumer electronics manufacturers, eager to move to the next step now that HDTV is reaching its saturation price point, think, there is no easy two-step to the ultimate 3D essence. It's a lot of work and it has yet to be proved that there is a cadre of players across all the disciplines needed to do that work.
How else to explain that the 3DTV experience still requires users--again, those three-quarters who can pull it off--to don admittedly silly glasses that can cost hundreds of dollars in addition to the price of a set?
"People want to have 3D without glasses but that's just not going to happen unless you want to watch it on a 20-inch screen," Louis Tarantino, a producer and co-founder of Flight 33 said during a panel at last fall's CTAM Summit in New Orleans.
People also want lower prices for 3D sets and some content to watch--with or without, although preferably without--glasses. Right now all of those are pipedreams. DirecTV offers three 3D channels in a joint venture with Sony and IMAX and cable operators have experimented around the edges. There were also some attempts to convert 2D to 3D content shown at CES but, according to Digital Trends' 2011 3DTV buyer's guide, "the technology won't woo you as much as you think. It's pretty crude."
CES proved another thing: TV set makers need 3DTV because the HDTV market is no longer cutting edge and prices are plummeting. As evidence, Sony's fiscal third quarter profit figures were down 8.6 percent as "its liquid-crystal display TV business is struggling amid strong competition from rivals like Samsung, LG and Panasonic that is driving down business," as The New York Times reported.
There is little doubt that 3D has the latest wow factor or that, given the opportunity, consumers will watch their programs come to life in their family rooms--especially sports. There's also been no small amount of hype associated with the technology that has led some observers such as movie mogul James Cameron to proclaim that the market is going to explode.
"The number of networks and terrestrial broadcast companies, cable companies and satellite companies that are investing, either tentatively or aggressively, in 3D is increasing all the time," Cameron said in an interview with Daily News & Analysis.
All the hype and hope, however, cannot disguise what will be a tougher road for the success of the technology than the one followed by HDTV.
3DTV success will mean "20, 30, 40 channels in five years," former Discovery COO Tom Cosgrove, now president-general manager of Discovery's 3D joint venture with Sony and IMAX predicted at that CTAM conference. It is, he said, a tough row for service providers and manufacturers and even content providers to hoe. "You need to know a lot to get going."
Just making 3D fit the screen is a challenge, said Dan Holden, a Comcast Fellow with the Comcast Media Center, speaking at last fall's SCTE Cable-Tec Expo.
"We need to start with ... really good source content" such as sports and higher resolution movies and then "take those pixels and re-do them," he said. Even then, with bandwidth and other restrictions, it's unlikely anyone can do better than deliver a half resolution picture because "nobody really knows how to get the full resolution yet," he said.
The biggest need now is to develop a set of standards on which the technology can be built to deliver the experience, he said. The second challenge is to figure a way to do programming once, not twice, as was the case when Comcast and CBS and ESPN collaborated to show last years Masters Tournament in all its green 3D glory.
"You can't send two production crews, one to shoot 3D and one to shoot 2D," he maintained.
Right now, if you had to separate one pressing need, it would be to separate the hype from the hope and answer the question "whether consumers are ready to commit to the extra expensive and effort required based on the perceived return," said Brunner's Giesen. "It's still a bit complicated to experience this technology as consumers must have a special television set and 3D glasses ... that need some serious design help."