Low 3-D Uptake Worries TV Manufacturers

For the past few years, display manufacturers of every stripe have been singing the praises of 3-D displays and their various levels of support for the nascent standard. Consumers, unfortunately, haven't been playing along. Despite marketing initiatives, high-profile film releases, and prominent support for 3-D gaming from the likes of Sony and Nvidia, 3-D isn't catching very well.

TV manufacturers are grappling with some of the same difficulties that've slowed down Blu-ray adoption. It took various manufacturers and the FCC decades to create an HDTV broadcast standard that satisfied the government's concerns while delivering superior image quality, but there was never any question as to whether or not consumers wanted larger TVs with superior image quality. The arguments here focused on which display technology and panel type could best scale to meet the needs of the market.

The RCA CT-100 (left, 1954) is the first NTSC-compatible commercial color TV. 44 years later, Fujitsu released the first 42" plasma TV that supported 480P. After that long, consumers were ready to upgrade.

It was clear from the beginning that high-definition televisions would devour the standard definition (SD) market in much the same way DVD players ate VHS. Both standards offered better image quality, required less packaging, and could improve color fidelity or offer better audio. Their modern counterparts (3-D and Blu-ray) offer improvements--but the benefits are more specialized and/or less noticable.

Consumers continue to buy more 3-D TVs every year, but current research suggests that's because manufacturers have continued to add 3-D support to an increasingly large percentage of their commercially available displays. According to the NPD Group, sales volumes are up slightly in 2011 but revenue has remained flat. Ticonderoga Security analyst Brian White recently wrote: "The LCD panel industry remains in the midst of a secular slowdown that is likely to only deteriorate further over the next couple of years."

Sony's Mike Arbary, a senior VP in Sony Electronics, told CNN the following: "Here's what we learned last year: Three-D [sic] as a technology wasn't necessarily a primary driver for why a customer would want to buy a TV. What customers are looking for is the best TV picture quality that they can buy," Abary said. "And if that TV happens to also have 3-D capability, that's just icing on the cake."

What Comes Next?

Sony is betting on 'smart' TVs to fuel the Next Big Thing engine. That's an uncertain path at best, for reasons that have nothing to do with the extra intelligence baked into any particular display. Streaming services via Netflix, Pandora, or even Hulu could draw consumers--but all of these options are ramping in the face of expanding broadband caps and ISP cash grabs. Broadcasters are deeply leery of IPTV services as evidenced by the reaction to GoogleTV earlier this year. One of the consequences of fusing TV and computer DNA is that manufacturers now have an interest in content consumption that may very well conflict with what cable providers have in mind.

The pure technology side of the industry isn't a wasteland, but we're still years away from a major display advance. Large OLED displays promise lower power consumption and much-improved color reproduction, but cling stubbornly to the horizon. Higher resolution standads (think 1440P) exist, but there's no formal plan in place for moving to higher broadcast standards.

With no must-have technology available in the near-term future, the display industry may have to accept the first lull in consumer interest in a decade or more. Wireless displays and streaming capabilities are attractive, but they don't pack the same punch as HDTV's in 720P did in the eyes of consumers used to nothing but 480i.