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3D Is Coming, Whether You Like It or Not

Your TV, your camera, your smartphone, even your PC--in the next few years, 3D will be everywhere.

It seems as if you can't go far on the Internet without finding another editorial ridiculing 3D. The TVs are too expensive, the movies make you dizzy, the glasses are a pain to use--the list goes on.

I can't blame anyone for thinking this way, since you can't find much out there that you can watch in 3D. But that kind of misses the point. 3D has been wildly successful. What's more, it will continue to succeed--even if no one you know buys a 3D TV for the next five years.

The Television Circle of Life

Let's start at the beginning: TV companies are in it to make money. To do that, they need to sell TVs. As they sell their TVs, they make more money, which they can use to build even better TVs that make your existing TV seem old and crappy, and then you buy a new one, and the Television Circle of Life continues.

Most of the time the improvements are simple and easy to understand. Switching from big tube TVs (CRTs) to flat-panel TVs (LCDs and plasmas) means thinner, lighter, more energy-efficient sets. LED backlighting (for LCDs) and better antireflective panels (for plasmas) make a TV look better. If you bought a new TV a year ago, you might not notice a tremendous difference between your set and a brand-new 2011 model, but after a few years of incremental changes to TV technology, you'll find yourself drooling over whatever the new hot features are.

The problem is, TV manufacturers have hit a plateau when it comes to incremental changes, for two reasons.

First, the average consumer doesn't care nearly as much about image quality as TV manufacturers would like. In my experience, most TV buyers are just looking for something big and cheap, and they don't focus so much on the little features that make the TV look better. Your average buyer might have read somewhere that they're supposed to care about refresh rates and viewing angles and such; but when it comes down to it, they don't pay a lot of attention to the image quality while they're watching something.

Not everyone is a home-theater enthusiast, and not everyone can afford the set that their home-theater enthusiast buddy recommends. When they see a new TV on a Best Buy shelf, they don't perceive a drastic difference between that image and the picture on their four-year-old plasma set back home. Basically, new TVs aren't different enough from old TVs to make enough people want to buy them--especially when they're mostly watching heavily compressed video coming in through their cable or satellite TV inputs that looks more or less the same on old and new TVs alike.

Second, these incremental improvements don't always look better, per se--just different. For example, LCD manufacturers have been bumping up the refresh rates every year or so for the past few years, from 60Hz to 120Hz all the way up to a ridiculous 960Hz. The increase solves the ghosting problems that LCDs had with motion-heavy scenes, such as fast action scenes or panning shots. However, higher refresh rates tend to make the whole image look smoother (as if all the people on screen were just kind of gliding around); cinephiles who dislike the change from the traditional film look call it the "soap-opera effect." For years, plasma TV manufacturers have played it up as a weakness of LCDs and a strength of plasmas. But enough people apparently prefer the soap-opera effect, since we're starting to see similar frame-interpolation techniques in plasmas now, too, even though they don't "need" them. In other words, many of the new image-quality features coming out are a matter of personal preference, not objective image quality.

Big Changes in HDTVs

So what does all that have to do with 3D? Simple: When the small changes can no longer convince you to buy a new set, TV manufacturers need to come up with a big change. However, TV manufacturers can only do so much by themselves, since they can't change anything about how the video you watch is made, only how it shows on your TV. For TV makers to be able to create a drastically new TV, the people making the video have to start using new gear first.

Think about the transition from standard-definition TVs to high-definition TVs. Unless you're a bleeding-edge TV enthusiast with cash to burn, you probably bought your first HDTV in the past six to seven years or so--a full ten years after the first HD public broadcast in the United States. If you owned an HD set in the early days, you encountered practically nothing that could take advantage of that set, and it really wasn't until the past four years or so that you could easily buy an HD camcorder that didn't cost an arm and a leg. Now, of course, you can get HD video from practically anything that can put video on your TV. As far as disruptive TV tech innovations go, HD is most certainly a success (how many people do you know who still have an SD TV as their main television?), but that took at least 15 years.

By comparison, 3D TVs are selling like hotcakes. During a recent press event, Panasonic reps claimed that 3D TVs were selling 5.5 times faster than HDTVs were in their first year, and cited a Consumer Reports forecast estimating that between 60 percent and 75 percent of the TV market in 2011 would be 3D-capable. It's easy to make fun of 3D TVs until you look at those numbers.

Sure, it's entirely likely that most of the people who buy those 3D TVs never intend to actually use the 3D features--but once they have them, content producers are more likely to make more 3D video, which means viewers are more likely to find something in 3D that they want to watch.

Right now, you can even buy 3D cameras and camcorders to shoot your own 3D video for a fraction of what an early HD camera cost--see the Fuji FinePix Real 3D camera ($500), the Sony Bloggie 3D pocket camcorder ($250), and the Sony HDR-TD10 3D Handycam ($1500), for example. Not bad, considering we're not even two years into 3D TV.

Why 3D Will Succeed

Currently people think of buying a 3D TV as a choice--that is, you can buy a standard 2D TV, or you can spend a bit more and buy a 3D TV. When faced with that choice, most people aren't going to shell out for 3D because it isn't worth the investment to them, which makes it easy to think that 3D TVs have completely bombed in the market and will never be widely adopted.

Here's the trick, though: It doesn't matter whether you buy a 3D TV right now or not. The TV manufacturers know that if they're going to stay in business, they'll need to convince you to buy a new TV in the next few years, so they start out by selling high-end 3D TVs. They know that most people won't buy them, just as most people didn't buy HDTVs for the first few years. What they're doing is establishing that 3D is a premium TV feature that should cost more than a non-3D TV. Naturally, the extra money they'll make from the early adopters is nice, but what's more important to them is the mental association between "3D" and "a high-end television."

Over the next few years, the TV makers will roll 3D into HDTV models at increasingly lower price points. And more consumers will buy them, thinking, "Well, I haven't bought a new TV in a while, and I can get such a good deal on a 3D TV right now." Meanwhile, 3D video will continue to proliferate, increasing the chances that you'll get hooked on a certain 3D-only show or channel.

We're already seeing that process at work. Even though most people generally think of 3D TV as a premium product, the fact is that during the 2010 holiday season you could pick up a cheap 50-inch plasma set for under $1000--sometimes even as low as $700. Right now, you can buy a passive-3D 47-inch LCD model from Vizio for under $900, hardly a premium price by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course, once you have a 3D TV, you'll want the one with better glasses, or a deeper 3D effect, and so on--that is to say, the TV manufacturers will have a whole bunch of incremental improvements to develop year by year just as they're currently doing. And that will keep you buying new TVs until they run out of small ways to improve those, and then they'll move on to the next big HDTV shift (which probably will be 4K-resolution HDTVs), and the TV Circle of Life will start once again.

So really, it doesn't matter what you think about 3D TVs. Love them or hate them, you will be watching 3D videos on your TV, taking 3D photos with your camera, playing 3D games on your new Xbox, and preserving your family moments with a pocket 3D camcorder within the next five years.

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