The great showman P.T. Barnum, the man who perfected the art of audience enticement, once put up a sign in his American Museum stating proudly, “This Way To The Egress.” Thousands followed . . . right to the exit door.
One could say much the same thing about the marketing of today's 3D TV sets: people will go even when there’s little "there” there.
Despite relatively few set sales, little viewable content, and no consensus that 3D adds any significant enjoyment to the TV viewing experience, the media/electronic industry complex soldiers on in its quest to make 3D the next big thing in consumer spending habits.
The latest news is the recent announcement by cable giant Comcast about Xfinity 3D, its new all-3D all-the-time TV channel.
According to a company press release, the channel which will bring “customers concerts from top-tier artists, sporting events [and] more than a dozen movies and original 3D programming ...
“In addition, Xfinity 3D will bring customers movies documenting African safaris, haunted castles, the depths of the ocean, the surface of the sun, the age of dinosaurs and more, along with original programming that gives customers unique perspectives of events such as Chinese dragon dancing and rhythmic gymnastics.”
For Seattle-area Comcast subscribers, the channel is identified as “XF3D.” and is viewable on Channel 897. According to Comcast technical support, other than owning a 3D set—which costs roughly 30 percent more than high-end 2D HDTV sets — there is no additional cost for the Comcast service. New cable set top boxes may be required, but will be substitutes for existing boxes and will carry no premium charge,
Comcast joins other major media companies in providing 3D programming. According to their respective websites, DirecTV offers four 3D channels: DirecTV Cinema; n3D, supported by Panasonic; ESPN3, from ABC/ESPN; and 3Net, jointly supported by Sony, Discovery Networks and IMAX. Dish Networks offers one 3D channel.
How well are 3D TV sets selling? The picture is far from clear. A CNET report from last November demonstrates the confusion over actual set sales.
A consulting firm called Futuresource Consulting predicted that 4 million would be sold by the end of 2010, and 8 million more worldwide by the end of 2011: 5 million of those in the U.S.
In the same article, CNET noted a Deloitte research firm study which found that 83 percent of consumers do not believe 3D technology is enough to make them want to buy a new television. Even worse for vendors, 60 percent of those surveyed said they wouldn't pay extra for 3D capabilities in their televisions. Moreover, Deloitte found that 31 percent of respondents believe 3D fails to "enhance the entertainment experience."
In January , CNET quoted market research firm DisplaySearch’s findings that just 3.2 million out of 24.7 million TV sets sold in the U.S. in 2010 were 3D-capable.
And yet, major TV manufacturers including Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, and Visio among others are producing 3D sets. All require the use of 3D glasses, in most cases the “active shutter” liquid crystal glasses which cost well over $100 per pair. Some believe the market would boom with the availability of glassless 3D sets, but glassless 3D technology demonstrations from Toshiba and others have thus far been disappointing, as witnessed by this writer in January  at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
For many, the problem is simple viewing habits. Consumers are still making the transition from traditional NTSC standard-definition sets (the tube-type “square box” TVs). While 56 percent of homes now have wide screen HDTV sets, according to a recent Nielsen study, actual HD viewing is under 20 percent due to people watching non-HD channels or still watching an SD set in the house.
“Despite the billions of dollars that Americans have spent buying high definition TVs, more than 80 percent of television viewing is still a standard definition experience,” the report notes.
If high-definition viewing is not yet the norm, then the 3D push makes little sense — except to corporate marketers looking for the next “insanely great thing,” in Steve Jobs’ memorable phrase, and seeing none, are hell-bent to create it.
There is little doubt that 3D movies are a raving success at the box office: as much as a 33 percent increase according to a study conducted by the International 3D Society. The devil is in the details, however. Only four films delivered half of the revenue, and most came from the whopping success of director James Cameron's "Avatar," the benchmark film (and the biggest box office hit ever) that set the pace for the current 3D craze. In addition, the box office success was based on the premium charged for 3D films, not for an overall increase in box attendance.
Is this a long term trend for movie production? A Financial Times article noted that several films shot in 2D were converted to 3D and movie houses reaped the benefits. It also noted, howeber, that as more films arrive in 3D, audiences will be choosier about where they spend their movie dollars. "Hollywood [is] an industry that has no qualms about recycling a good idea until it is worn beyond repair," the article indicated.
Whether the 3D box office success translates to 3D television is an open question. A landmark study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers concludes that success is uncertain. It notes: "The development of 3D TV depends mainly on the availability of quality 3D content and the adoption of 3D TV by end users."
What is "quality 3D content"? Is it “African safaris, haunted castles, the depths of the ocean, the surface of the sun, the age of dinosaurs . . Chinese dragon dancing and rhythmic gymnastics”?
The general consensus is that video games, animated features and sports are the greatest beneficiaries of the 3D effect: an interest that skews to younger people, and not to those necessarily with the buying power to buy 3D devices and drive mass market adoption.
Shooting productions in 3D is an expensive proposition because it requires the director and his stereo consultant to understand, as well as direct, where a viewer will be focusing his/her eyes. Simply assuming that watching 3D is like looking inside a carefully constructed doll house, where everything is perfectly rendered and as “real” as a real house is a false assumption.
If the production is not extremely careful about how that 3D effect is rendered, the results can produce dizziness and nausea. The effect is called “brain shear.” Cameron once defined it as “the brains’ inability to reconcile the images received by the left and right eyes into a coherent stereo image, which causes it to send corrective messages to the eye muscles, which try to compensate but can’t fix the problems baked into the image on the screen.”
When television moved from the antiquated analog NTSC system to today’s high-definition system, there was good reason for it. The TV pictures were far sharper, and we could view productions in the wide-screen format for which they were designed. The addition of 3D is simply to add in an effect that, in the long run, may add little if anything to viewers’ enjoyment in the long run.
Watching 3D TV for the effects can be fun ... the first time. But as a production technique for television that adds intrinsic value to the stories being told or the events being presented, it may be a gimmick in search of its raison d’etre.