Popularity of 3-D television on the wane

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When it comes to 3-D television, the picture is anything but clear.

Described by one network executive as a "science experiment," the popularity of 3-D could be drawing to a close in the United States. Programming choices and consumer awareness are dwindling after a three-year campaign.

"I know the manufacturers and the content guys. They put a lot of resources into educating people, but it just didn't resonate," said Ben Arnold, director of industry analysis for Long Island-based The NPD Group, which provides international market information and advisory services.

But industry experts haven't completely thrown in the towel. Chuck Pagano, executive vice president and chief technology officer of ESPN, told industry trade Multichannel News, "We gave it a shot to see where it landed. ... We'll at least be ready to entertain it again [if 3-D makes a comeback]."

Last month, ESPN announced it would phase out its subscription 3-D service by year's end, effectively sounding a death knell. Part of a June 12 tweet on ESPN 3-D's official Twitter feed read: "Even with strong production, a lack of demand from majority of consumers. Thanks for your loyalty."

Across the pond, the BBC also is finding a drop-off in consumer interest despite offering a wider range of programming than in the States. FIFA World Cup soccer and Wimbledon have been part of its 3-D offerings, as well as the comedy program "Mr. Stink," and "Strictly Come Dancing," the reality show on which "Dancing With the Stars" is based.

The BBC's two-year trial for this range of programs ended last month. A three-year agreement with Sony and the All England Lawn Tennis Club to broadcast Wimbledon ends with today's finals.

On Thursday, BBC announced it will put 3-D program development on hold at the end of 2013, with no plans to resume until 2017.

At the same time, sales of television with 3-D capability are on the rise. This might seem strange, but it makes sense. The global information company IHS forecasts 8.8 million 3-D televisions will be shipped in the U.S. this year, up from 6.2 million in 2012. But growth will significantly slow after that.

"This [ESPN announcement] won't impact sales of 3-D TVs in the short term since most high-end TVs will continue to include this feature. ... This is a push from TV manufacturers," said Veronica Gonzalez-Thayer, an analyst for IHS Electronics & Media and member of the TV systems research team.

"Consumers have come to expect a lot of premium features when spending more for a TV, like Internet connectivity -- 'smart TV' -- and 3-D, even if they don't plan to use such features."

A 2012 NPD Group study indicated that among the sports fans surveyed, just over half -- 56 percent -- were interested in watching events in 3-D, compared to 70 percent in 2011.

Of course, 3-D technology still makes its mark at the movies, on video game consoles and in some areas of medical and scientific imaging. Some countries, such as South Korea, have readily adopted 3-D on flat-screen televisions.

What is 3-D TV?

Most people first experience 3-D from attending blockbuster summer movies such as "Avatar" or "Man of Steel," which hyped the added-value experience. Three-dimensional viewing -- whether it's on a screen at the multiplex or in your living room -- means the content is presented in stereo, or two separate signals of content.

The viewer, who must wear special glasses, sees one stream with the left eye, the other with the right. The brain does the heavy lifting from there, putting them together to form a field of vision with greater depth.

There are two kinds of glasses. The relatively cheap, passive kind handed out at the movies and the expensive active kind -- costing anywhere from $50 to $150. Most manufacturers throw in a pair or two with the television set, and the two types are not interchangeable. Active glasses alternately shutter what the left or right eyes take in, and this sometimes causes the viewer to experience a flickering sensation.

"There's an interesting trade-off," said Martin Banks, chairman of the visual science program at the University of California at Berkeley. "The active glasses provide higher spacial resolution. So you can see finer detail in stereo 3-D than you can see with the passive glasses, but the passive technology does better in time; there are some issues that occur over time, like seeing motions smoothly."

Although some studies -- including one at UC Berkeley -- suggest viewing 3-D television can lead to visual fatigue, Mr. Banks said, "I don't think there is a smoking gun here. I don't think there is anything that points to a concern, but having said that, anything that's new, there could be some unforeseen thing that we have not anticipated."

The biggest complaint from consumers is the need to wear the glasses, which many perceive as an inconvenience. It's a moot point for a small portion of the population at large -- anywhere from 2 percent to 12 percent by some studies -- that is incapable to seeing images in 3-D.

Proponents of 3-D marvel at the immersive experience, which promises to put the viewer into the picture. Opponents argue that wearing these glasses is annoying, not to mention expensive for the family or group that wants to watch together.

To watch television in 3-D, there are a number of necessary components. First the set has to be 3-D-enabled, meaning it has the technology to take those separate signals and create the viewable image.

Then, there are the glasses. In the past, some advertisers and broadcasters have fudged the precise meaning of "3-D," putting out Super Bowl commercials or, as the BBC did in 1993, a special 30th anniversary "Doctor Who" special.

In these cases, viewers could wear passive glasses that created the sort-of experience of 3-D.

Today's viewers need content, whether it comes from a cable provider such as Comcast Xfinity or Verizon FiOS. Many new Blu-ray players offer 3-D versions of discs.

"It's not a plug-and-play sort of thing, where you get the TV and you're off and running," Mr. Arnold said, adding that this contributed to 3-D's slide in popularity. "You have to add the pieces to that, and I think that's not so much confusing for consumers but it's just more things to buy.

"And in this age, where we've gotten demand for 3-D devices but our wallet is smaller, it's kind of a big proposition to ask."

Beyond 3-D

Despite manufacturers' three-year push to advertise the glories of 3-D television, consumer awareness has been weak. Many people assumed televisions that are 3-D-enabled were much more expensive with the feature -- not true -- or that regular 2-D content could not be viewed on them -- most definitely not true.

"These are fairly basic concepts, but they just didn't come across," Mr. Arnold said.

It hasn't helped that consumers already are looking at a new Next Big Thing. The 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas featured sneak peeks at 4K high definition.

Pixels are the tiny one-color dots that comprise digital images. On screen, a higher pixel count allows images to be shown larger before they begin to "break up." The current standard HD and full HD are 720 and 1080 resolution.

The new 4K would be four times as sharp, and with an eye to the future, ESPN has announced its new digital production center in Bristol, Conn., will be capable of someday broadcasting in 8K. Sony recently debuted a $699 media player that comes preloaded with 10 movies, including "The Amazing Spider-Man."

This Ultra HD boasts 8 million pixels versus the 2 million found at 1080 resolution.

The 4K high definition really shines on televisions larger than 50 inches. In order to appreciate the finer detail, viewers must sit closer to their TVs.

"If you're too far away, you're wasting your money," Mr. Banks said. "It's a nice, big field of view and you can feel like you're almost in the scene. And that should be cool."

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Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1478 or on Twitter @MariaSciulloPG.


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