SHIFT: Why 3D HDTV will never take off

3D HDTV is stupid and will never be commercially successful. I know that's the kind of statement that might come back to bite me in the ass in five years, but I have a lot of objections to the idea. Some are obvious (glasses), some inside baseball (no standardized format), some technological (shortage of cable TV bandwidth), and some may be premature (new equipment to buy?). I'll explore all my anti-3D reasoning after the Continue jump, along with the one possible way 3D HDTV could succeed.

I'm not a Luddite, just a cynic. If man were meant to watch 3D TV, we'd be able to see in 3… uh, okay, bad analogy. Guess I'll have to resort to logic.

At CES, I saw an impressive 3D HDTV demo from Panasonic. In the demo, a regular plasma TV and a Blu-ray player "capable of distributing full High Definition (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) images to the left eye and right eye" were used. But a number of companies have 3D formats of their own (including Samsung, Mitsubishi and Philips). Some require glasses and some don't, but no demo I've seen is as impressive as Panasonic's.

What's needed is one system, and Panasonic has been the most aggressive about pushing its system as a standard. But remember how tenaciously Toshiba held out with HD DVD? Given the potential royalty dollars at stake, don't expect any universal standard to be agreed upon anytime soon, no matter how superior anyone's solution is.

Geeks Who Wear Glasses…
With Panasonic's system, and many others, you still need to wear special glasses. Would you wear glasses to watch TV, even if it were to watch really cool 3D HDTV?

Even if you would, would the rest of your viewing companions? Watching movies in a dark theater is a solitary activity, even with a date. Watching TV at home, however, is often a social activity. After seeing something memorable, we often glance at our viewing companions to affirm our appreciation of the moment. But 3D glasses are dark. It'll be hard to share a moment if you can't see your companion's eyes.

On a pure logistical level, how many pairs of glasses do you buy and keep handy? One for every member of the family? What if you invite friends and family over for a 3D movie night? Do you make it BYO3DG?

And where do you keep all these glasses? Unless you're OCD, you're sure to lose them, or accidentally sit on them, or spill food on them, or the dog will try to eat them, etc. At least they don't need batteries.

A Niche of a Niche
Panasonic's idea is 3D Blu-ray. But Blu-ray isn't much of a platform onto which to staple a sub-platform.

For example, the Blu-ray Disc Association says Blu-ray has a U.S. household penetration rate of just 7.5% — and that includes the PlayStation 3, which represents the bulk of Blu-ray hardware sales. Blu-ray discs cost twice as much as their DVD counterparts, further hindering widespread adoption.

And already Blu-ray is being threatened by HD cable, satellite and VOD programming, as well as the growing volume of streaming HD content, all obviating the need for packaged Blu-ray media and separate Blu-ray hardware.

Plus, you might need a special Blu-ray player to play 3D Blu-ray discs.

No, regardless of how low hardware prices go, Blu-ray is likely to remain only a segment of a shrinking DVD market. Since Blu-ray won't be mainstream for years — if ever — how will 3D Blu-ray catch on?

Viagra TV
If 3D HDTV is going to catch on, it would likely have to be available not only as packaged media, but broadcast as well. But as far as I know, no one has proposed a workable broadcast 3D format.

No, if 3D is to succeed, it'll be as packaged content that has to be super compelling. Panasonic's 3D demo footage of basketball and football games was astounding — I felt as if Kobe was going to pass me the ball. I've never experienced a sporting event as if I were on the court or field.

But sports is only viable delivered as a live broadcast, so forget being able to watch a CC Sabathia fastball seeming to come right at your head.

So what kind of packaged media would consumers find compelling enough to adopt a vivid, lifelike, puts-you-in-the-middle-of full high-definition 3D action format that requires you to wear dark glasses indoors?

Probably only a format that you'd also want to wear a raincoat while watching.

As discomfiting as it may be for the HDTV hardware and software industry, home video boomed because of pornography. But the Internet's easy access and no-physical-boxes-to-hide-from-the-wife aspect has shifted the bulk of the porn business to the Web.

If Panasonic wants us to adopt 3D Blu-ray, perhaps instead of recruiting James Cameron as a pitchman, it ought to consider Katie Morgan.