It's too early to tell whether 3-D will follow the path of Blu-ray: touted by enthusiasts, expensive at the outset and slow to be adopted by mainstream consumers. But there's no question 3-D is on the "push" list by manufacturers as part of this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
"Major consumer technology companies are attracted to 3-D because it offers a 'gee whiz' escape pod from the downward price spiral of flat-panel televisions and Blu-ray players," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group research firm. "Some have even positioned it as the third revolution in TV, after color and high-definition."
Two cable networks, ESPN and Discovery, said this week they plan to launch 3-D networks. ESPN's is expected to begin in June, with a minimum of 85 live events in the first year. Discovery, which is teaming with Sony and Imax for its 3-D network, which could start by the end of this year. Programming will include natural history, space, science and technology.
Satellite TV provider DirectTV plans start the country's America’s first 3-D, HDTV channel after its March launch of a new satellite. And the National Football League has experimented with 3-D coverage.
DisplaySearch, whose parent company is The NPD Group, recently forecast that 1.2 million sets capable of displaying 3-D will ship this year, and that in 2013, that number will jump to 15.6 million sets, and in 2018 to 196 million sets. 2010 represents just the beginning of this potential boom, with several 3-D sets being announced at CES. LG Electronics says it will introduce its first 3-D-capable flat panel TVs for the United States in May.
"The dilemma facing TV set manufacturers is whether to rush in with cheap solutions,” said Paul Gray, DisplaySearch director of TV electronics research in a report. "If they skimp on processing and displays, performance will be disappointing and consumers will lose interest.
"While everyone is looking for a solution for the industry’s mediocre margins, technology alone cannot solve the economics, and it is important to take the time to develop the 3-D proposition thoroughly.”
The firm estimates that LCD TV prices have been falling by between 20 and 30 percent year on year, and that when 2009 sales are tallied, the average LCD TV price will have decreased 24 percent, twice the rate of decline in pricing from 2008.
Into this picture comes 3-D, with manufacturers ready to release sets this year that can provide it with the aid of special glasses, ones that are improved from those funny-looking, red-and-blue plastic ones used by 1950s moviegoers.
The 3-D experience of the 21st century is touted as being quite different, with glasses that don't give the viewer headaches or make them nauseous, some of the complaints of the earlier-generation models.
"They’re much more substantial," said Tim Alessi, director of product development for LG Electronics USA of the current crop of glasses.
"We use the 'active (shutter) type,' which alternately shut on and off the left and right eye in sync with the picture," he said. "That's how it splits up the image so that’s how you get the 3-D effect."
There are other types of glasses, and manufacturers will vary on which they choose to work with their sets. Costs of the glasses range from under $1 apiece for some polarized lenses to more than $100 for those by XpanD, a company whose glasses incorporate battery-powered shutters.
Alessi said buying a TV with 3-D will probably add about $200 to $300 to the cost of the set.
The recently released movie "Avatar" has gotten the most attention for its use of 3-D, and other films in 2009 started to drum up interest in the format: "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," "A Christmas Carol" and "Monsters vs Aliens" among them.
TV programming is another matter.
"Even though content selection (for TV) will be limited at first, the industry must be encouraged by the success of 'Avatar' for proof that 3-D has appeal beyond computer-generated animated films," said Rubin of The NPD Group.
"This really is a chicken and egg issue, where there hasn’t been enough content to justify getting product on the market," said John Taylor of LG Electronics. "This year is when you’re really going to see the content ramp up."
Another boost for 3-D is the Blu-ray Disc Association's recent approval of a technical standard for 3-D Blu-ray, which itself is just starting to gain more consumer acceptance nearly two years after being declared the winner in the high-definition DVD format wars.
Blu-ray, previously hobbled by high pricing, has become more affordable, with players going for under $100 during the holiday season. Many consumers continued to stick with standard DVD players because those discs were cheaper and also could be played in portable players for travel. Studios have recently started packaging Blu-ray discs with regular versions on DVDs.
It's not just TV or movies
While it's mainly movies and TV that are getting the most attention now, they're not the only avenues for 3-D. Video games are candidates, with 3-D the star of Ubisoft's "Avatar: The Game."
More than two months ago, Acer came out with a 3-D gaming laptop, one of its Aspire models with a 15.6-inch screen using Windows 7. The Microsoft operating system doesn't have features for 3-D screens, so the computer maker also ships special movie player software with the $780 laptop. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
3M is going 3-D, too. Its optical systems division has developed 3-D optical film for mobile phones and handheld game devices that offer "true stereoscopic 3-D viewing" without the need for glasses.
"Everybody is getting on the 3-D bandwagon," said Shawn DuBravac, director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, sponsor of the Consumer Electronics Show.
"There are notebooks that will be 3-D capable; there are mobile devices that are 3-D capable. There are cameras that are going to be 3-D, and 3-D projectors, so people who want to do home theater and have a 3-D experience can do that from a projector."
At last year's CES, "We saw a lot of 3-D, but it was mostly companies talking about their technology, or highlighting their technology in a more macro sense," DuBravac said.
"But this year they’ll be highlighting specific models or products that are 3-D ready. You’re going to see products that are going to be shipping in the next few weeks and months."