3D, or Not 3D? That Was the Question at CES

CES should have issued attendees 3D glasses along with their name badges when they registered for this year’s gathering in Las Vegas. Nearly everywhere you went on the main show floor, people were sporting polarized shades or queuing up to try on the full wraparound 3D goggles that HDTV makers had laid out to experience their new 3D-enabled sets.

The real question for the industry, though, is whether consumers will be queuing up at Best Buy to get 3DTVs when sets start hitting retail floors later this year from such major manufacturers as Sony, Panasonic, LG and Samsung. And the answer is anything but clear.

There is certainly reason to believe they will. According to research conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association, along with the Entertainment Technology Center at USC, there is strong consumer interest in 3D technology (GigaOM Pro, subscription req’d.). According to their findings, 25 percent of consumers plan to buy a 3DTV set in the next three years. That would represent 28 million sets, including 4.3 million that CEA estimates will be sold just in 2010.

Consumers are also willing to pay a premium of 15-20 percent for 3D, according to the study. “The big question is, do consumers think 3D is real?” said ETC’s executive director, David Wertheimer. “And the answer is, yes they do, and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Others in the TV ecosystem are less convinced, however. “I think over-the-top video is really the big story that’s getting overlooked here,” Harold Geller, managing director of Ad-iD and senior VP of the Association of American Advertising Agencies, said during a panel discussion on media monetization strategies. “There are always early adopters who will jump on whatever is the cool new thing, which in this case is 3D. But if you look at all the devices here [at CES] that have app stores, that have Internet connectivity, these are the common technologies. It’s all about discovery, about finding new content and bringing it into your living room. Over-the-top video is how you’re going to reach the mass consumer, not 3D.”

That view was seconded by Nic Covey, director of cross-platform insights for The Nielsen Company. “In terms of where the consumer is, over the top is where the action is going to be in 2010,” he said. “That’s what they’re looking for.”

For all the attention paid to 3D at this year’s CES, in fact, there was a certain surreal quality to the discussion. While consumers may be intrigued by 3DTV, there’s no question that at least some of the apparent buzz around the technology is being juiced by hardware makers eager for a sock-o new feature to push to consumers.

Panasonic’s chief technology officer Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, in an unguarded moment, admitted as much. “It’s a challenging market,”  he said on a panel titled “3DTV: Hope or Hype.” “We need something to kick us out of this. To me the thing that’s going to get us there is 3D.”

Panasonic, in fact, is going so far as to largely bankroll DirecTV’s foray into 3D broadcasting,  as the “exclusive presenting partner” of the three planned 3D channels, to try to make sure consumers have something to watch on their new 3D plasma TVs.

Sony is also bankrolling 3D content creation, partnering with Discovery Communications and IMAX on a new 3D channel and signing on as the main sponsor of one planned by ESPN.

Yet even ESPN seems uncertain about the channel’s prospects. “We need to be able to get 2D and 3D [versions of live sporting events] produced in the same truck,” ESPN’s Chief Technology Officer Chuck Pagano said. “If we have to do side-by-side production, with two crews and two trucks, it could end up being a very long putt for us in terms of making this work economically.”

It’s not unheard of for hardware makers to underwrite the cost of content creation early in a new format’s rollout. Sony is still subsidizing the costs of Blu-ray Disc replication for some studios. But it can’t do it forever. If 3D programming can’t stand on its own at  some point, CES attendees can toss aside all the 3D glasses they’ve accumulated this week.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user Lucas Hoyos.