What I Learned at CES 2010 – 3D Won’t Save Sony (or Samsung, or Panasonic…)

CES 2010 was a bit smaller than in years past, but there were still some groundbreaking technologies introduced. However, most of the buzz was about three things – 3D HDTV, eBooks and Slates. Here’s what I think I learned about 3D – and I’ll follow up next week with my thoughts on eBooks and Slates – just in time for Apple to launch the Jesus Tablet.

3D Won’t Save Sony: Or Samsung or Panasonic – or even Comcast or DirecTV. 3D HDTVs were everywhere on the show floor, and ESPN, Discovery and others announced upcoming 3D channel launches many were predicting that it would be as big as HDTV. That’s just not going to happen. Sure, 3D makes for amazing spectacles, including the popular movie Avatar, and top sporting events. But it’s a feature, not a brand new category.

The TV industry is desperately trying to reinvent itself as today’s cell phone or PC industry – rather than yesterday’s model. With phones or PCs, we regularly upgrade every two to three years to get the latest features and capabilities. With TVs, it’s more like a 5-10 year replacement cycle.

According to its adherents, 3D will change all that, as it inspires millions to junk the TVs they bought in 2007 and 2008 for the newfangled models. But it’s going to fall short, and here’s why:

I have a theory of technology adoption; call it Louderback’s Law, which says that any new development has to be substantially better on at least two dimensions. And if it falls short on another dimension, it must counterbalance with yet a third to become a real hit – a net score of +2, at the least. 3D TVs, by my calculations aren’t even in positive territory.

Let’s start with the plusses.

  1. It Looks Awesome: Fast paced movies and sports look pretty darn awesome on 3D. If you get everything right, the experience is stunning. No argument. That’s one in the plus column.

But, Um, that’s all I have on the plus side. Let’s move over to the negative.

  1. Prosthetic Devices Required: Let’s face it, unless it’s a real spectacle – like the Super Bowl or Avatar – Americans are not going to wear dorky glasses to watch TV. Can you just imagine inviting a super-hot date over to your pad to watch a little telly – and forcing her (or him) to put on a pair of glasses? Now that’s romantic. Or how about getting the family together for a little family TV watching? Heck, it’s hard enough to keep track of all those remotes, now we’ve got to track down the glasses too? And guaranteed, little Billy will throw-up before Buzz Lightyear meets Cowboy Woody. And when it comes to casual viewing, forget it. I won’t be wearing glasses while cooking, surfing the net, tweeting, reading the paper, talking on the phone, or any of the other zillion things we all do every day while watching TV.   

    Sure, there are sets that promise 3D without glasses. I’ve seen ’em. But you have to stand in just the right place, and hold your head just-so for them to work right. And apart from being a boon to chiropractors, no one’s going to want them. The future of 3D is in technology that does away with the prosthetic devices – or alternately, when we all start wearing tiny video-enabled contact lenses that can superimpose data, visualization and 3D shuttering directly into our retina. And that, my friends, is at least 4-5 years away. Except if you’re already a card-carrying member of Dorks Anonymous, that’s our first negative.

  2. Dim, Dim, Dim: And when you do put on those glasses, that super-bright LED four-pixel set you paid a boatload for will be dimmer than an eight year old plasma that’s been burning pixels 24-7. It’ll look great in a dark room – or at Best Buy – but put it into the average American living room, with skylights and cathedral ceilings, and it’ll be practically unwatchable during the day – at least with the glasses on.
  3. Expensive: This one’s not so bad – as it’ll cost just a few hundred dollars more for the sets at first, and eventually it ought to be nearly free. But until it is free, cost conscious buyers will be wary. Touch screens were available on notebook computers for years, yet because these features added $100 or more to the cost of a notebook, few users actually purchased them. But now that touch is ubiquitous and mostly free, it’s becoming more common. 3D will be like that. The glasses, hopefully, will be relatively inexpensive. Heck, they might even be free – if you attend enough 3D movies, and end up walking out with the pair they provide you.
  4. Content Will be Expensive and Limited: In the early days of HDTV, there were limited choices. But the advantages were so stark that early adopters would watch boring nature documentaries and even test patterns – if they were in HD. Heck, almost everything – apart from Rush Limbaugh and Larry King – looked better in HD. That won’t be the case with 3D. The HD transition took about 10 years, but it will be much harder to move all video content to 3D. And the content itself promises to be pricey to create, distribute and watch. Shooting in HD requires special cameras, special skills and special equipment – along with the 3D technology licensing. That will translate into much higher costs. 

    HD consumers are already paying an extra $10 on their cable bill for the privilege of getting the channels they already pay for encoded in HD (that, too, is a crime, but grist for another post). Consumers will balk at paying yet another $10 monthly for the exact same content – in effect paying for the same show three times.

So from where I sit, there is one clear differentiator – a great experience on epic video events. And at least four negatives, for a net score of minus three. 3D video at home is not going to be the next big thing – in fact, it’s been available to gamers for years, yet even those hard-core early adopters have mostly shied away.

But even though it won’t save the TV industry, it will be big eventually; when broad viewing-angle sets are available that don’t need glasses, and at a very, very small price premium. Until then, epic events will be available in 3D at movie theaters, and your dorky friend’s house. But even he won’t use it more than once or twice a week.

Want to see what I liked at CES? Check out all the cool CES products we covered at Revision3.

One Comment

Gail Bronson January 13, 2010

Excellent analysis!Thanks for the post.

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