Are We Putting the 3-D Cart Before the Horse?

Heading into the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month, it’s already clear that the big story in the home entertainment sector will be 3-D. There will be countless 3DTVs on display, 3-D Blu-ray prototypes, dueling 3-D eyewear demos, and hoopla from at least three different 3-D consortia. What attendees won’t see, however, is a lot of 3-D programming, and therein lies the rub.

For all the buzz surrounding “Avatar” and other recent big-screen 3-D releases the amount of content actually being shot in 3-D remains minuscule. According to the [email protected] Consortium, some 160 3-D movies have been released in theaters in this decade, more than in any previous decade, including the “golden age” of 3-D cinema in the 1950s. But for most consumers, movies make up only a tiny slice of their total TV use. The overwhelming majority of TV viewing time is spent watching ordinary TV fare, none of which is currently being produced in 3D.

Hardware makers and technology providers are placing huge bets that enthusiasm for 3-D movies in the theater will translate into demand for 3-D in the home. Sony is boldly predicting that as many as half the TV sets it sells in its 2012 fiscal year will be 3-D capable. Research analysts, including GigaOM Pro partner Alfred Poor, are issuing bullish forecasts for consumer adoption of 3-D technology. But few seem to be stopping to consider what consumers will watch on all those hypothetical new 3DTVs, apart from a few movies, or whether consumers will be willing to pay more for hardware to watch such a limited amount of content in 3-D.

The problem is really twofold: Consumers have just come through a upgrade cycle in their home entertainment systems, moving from standard to high def. Many of them spent $1,000 or more to make the switch. How realistic is it to expect that any significant number will be back in the market for a 3-D set over the next decade? It’s true that the HD upgrade cycle is not yet complete; HD sets make up only about half the TV sets in the U.S., according to some analysts, suggesting there’s a lot of upgrading yet to do. Yet those consumers who still haven’t taken the HD plunge are self-evidently less motivated by technology than others, so how likely are they to spend extra for a 3D-capable set?

For consumers to take another expensive plunge, there’s going to need to be a lot of compelling programming available for them to watch. But it’s hard to see where that content is going to come from. It’s certainly not going to come from the TV networks, which produce the vast bulk of what consumers actually use their TVs for. Producing in 3-D is expensive, and apart from a few filmmakers working with big studio budgets, few content creators today are likely to see the added expense as a worthwhile investment.

The TV networks are doing all they can these days to keep programming costs down, in fact, loading their schedules with relatively cheap-to-produce reality shows as they battle shrinking ad revenue. They’re not about to get into producing shows in 3-D unless there’s some very obvious roadmap for how the added expense will be paid for, which at the moment does not exist.

The best hope for consumer adoption of 3-D, in fact, as Kris Tuttle and Steve Waite point out in their report for GigaOm Pro, 3D Computing: From Digital Cinema to GPUs, likely lies in the gradual spread of 3-D technology and interfaces in computing and videogames, as well as on the Internet, not through the TV and traditional TV programming.

Bottom line? Consumers may tell survey takers they want their 3DTVs. But wanting them is not the same as being willing to pay for them.

Question of the week

Would you buy a 3-D TV just to watch movies?