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Enjoying 3D at Home Is Still a Maddening Prospect

Oct 15, 2012 9:54 AM, By Jason Bovberg


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Do you have 3D TV capability in your home theater or living room? Enjoying sports and other programming on your lovely multi-dimensional HDTV, are you? If so, you’re in an infinitesimal minority. According to a study by Ryan Nakashima of the Associated Press, audiences enjoying 3D at home are so small that they can’t be measured by Nielsen’s rating system. “Fewer than 115,000 American homes are tuned into 3D channels at any one time.”

That figure is about in tune with my experiences. The only people I hear talking about 3D programming exist on a web forum devoted to it. They’re a crazy bunch of folks who are heavily invested in the experience. They’re first in line to buy 3D movies on Blu-ray when they debut, and they obsessively share their thoughts about the varying quality of 3D cable programming. They’re a small group, but they’re certainly passionate. I guess that’s the way most new technology gains traction—a high-energy cult group embracing it at first, followed by the larger attention of the masses. But 3D isn’t exactly new, and in its current digital incarnation—easily the highest-quality, most technologically promising incarnation in the history of 3D—it’s still showing no sign of gaining traction among home consumers.

In this column two years ago, in “Why 3D Home Theater Should (and Will) Fail”, I wrote about the prospect of 3D in the home. In the two years since, widespread adoption has eluded the technology, as predicted.

I have a fairly techy group of friends, and even today—as digital 3D programming for sports and other events continues to improve, and as 3D Blu-rays are dropping in price to compete with their regular Blu-ray counterparts—none of these techy friends are really interested in bringing 3D into the home. One friend purchased a new HDTV that happens to offer 3D capability, as well as a Blu-ray player that happens to offer 3D capability, but he never uses those devices to watch 3D video. He sees no point in it; it’s just that the TV and the player were the same price as the other sets. Even after having the TV for a year, he says he’s glad his components have the 3D capability just in case he ever sees the need to upgrade. But mostly when he speaks of 3D, he just shrugs.

The problem is, not many people are feeling that need to upgrade. Most people are shrugging.

Nakashima identifies three key problems: “3D TV is expensive to produce, so there's not a lot of it. Of the content out there, some isn't very good. There's an equipment problem: Some people find the special glasses required for 3D TV uncomfortable. And there's a money problem: Many wonder if it's worth the extra cost.” Allow me to walk through each point, because I think they succinctly encapsulate why 3D will never be a real factor in the home.

CONTENT

There’s just not a lot of content out there, is there? Just as there are few true filmed-in-3D films made for theaters, there are few made-for-3D programs being broadcast. And when providers offer true 3D programming, it’s generally expensive, often at an additional cost. Because of the extra expense, viewers have a tendency to settle for the lower-cost 3D options, which don’t show off the technology to full effect, and therein lies frustration. It’s my contention that many people who initially invest in 3D technology for the home—by purchasing the TV, the programming, the special player, and a pair of glasses per viewer—end up feeling gypped by the lack of quality 3D material available.

EQUIPMENT

The previous point leads nicely into this one: To even get to the point at which you’re ready to start enjoying 3D programming, you have to invest quite a bit of cash into hardware. As mentioned previously, many TVs and Blu-ray players are offering 3D capability by default, almost as a no-cost extra, but to acquire cable or dish programming in 3D, you’re going to need to upgrade to an HD box (you probably already have) and possibly a 3D-enabled tuner. And the prospect of buying 3D glasses adds a whole new level of frustration to the 3D experience. Although passive 3D glasses are relatively cheap, the more commonly required active 3D glasses are upwards of $100 per pair, adding a $400 premium, per family, to the 3D experience.

COST

Is the extra cost worth it? From the production aspect, 3D programming demands added cash upfront simply because shooting 3D requires a costly beam-splitter rig in place of the two choreographed cameras that the process once demanded. It’s a more time-intensive, intricate process. And when producers look at the weak-viewership numbers exposed by Nakashima, as well as the lack of profits coming in from apathetic consumers, they’re less likely to invest in the technology going forward. And from the perspective of the consumer, the paucity of available programming—or, at least, high-quality 3D content—is leaving most consumers feeling as if the expense far outweighs the value.

Those are some daunting barriers for 3D to overcome. And there are others, noted in the aforementioned article and observed in my own experience. I know more than a few people who are utterly turned off by the entire notion of 3D, calling it gimmicky and useless, adding nothing to experience of media enjoyment. A Leichtman Research Group study found that 38 percent of respondents rated 3D TV poorly, at 3 or below on a scale of 10. These results are skewed, no doubt, by the sheer volume of crappy 3D that’s been produced, either after-the-fact in post-roduction, or—worse—“simulated” from a 2D source by the HDTV itself.

And I know other people for whom 3D programming is hard on the eyes. Either the glasses are bulky and uncomfortable on the head (particularly for those who already wear glasses), or the 3D process is simply headache-inducing. Some people have existing eye problems that make 3D impossible to enjoy.

I stand by the assertions of my original article: I still have severe reservations about bringing 3D in the home. It’s an occasional lark to take the family to the movies and watch the latest animated film in 3D (like Tim Burton’s recent Frankenweenie, a rare filmed-for-3D movie that serves the 3D format incredibly well), but translating the experience to the home remains elusive and frustrating—and, frankly, not worth the cost.



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