Wednesday, August 21

3-D TV faces uncertain future

3-D TV faces uncertain future
| By Michelle V. Rafter, MSN Money

Though sales of 3-D televisions are slowing and ESPN and BBC plan to stop airing the format, the technology still has its supporters.

Just a few years ago, 3-D TV looked like the next big thing in consumer electronics, but now its future is uncertain after two high-profile programmers have abandoned the format.

Emboldened by the success of the 2009 film "Avatar," which included a popular 3-D version, television manufacturers and programmers rushed into the market. Nearly 30% of LCD TV panels shipped this year worldwide are expected to be 3-D compatible, according to NPD DisplaySearch, a display industry analyst.

But 3-D TV has failed to catch on with U.S. audiences as quickly as anticipated. Only 12 million 3-D TVs have been sold in the country, according to NPD Group analyst Ben Arnold. There's still a dearth of top-tier TV programs airing in the format; watching it makes some people sick; and then there are those glasses.

"3-D TV is a troubled little puppy right now," says Brett L. Sappington, the research director at home electronics researcher Parks Associates.

In June, ESPN said it would stop airing 3-D games and sporting events by the end of the year. On July 5, BBC said it will suspend 3-D programming indefinitely by November due to "lack of public appetite" for the technology.

In the United States, growth in the sale of 3-D TV sets is slowing. Sales of 3-D TVs jumped 32% in 2012, but grew only 5% through the first quarter of 2013, according to Arnold of NPD Group. This year, only 14% of U.S. consumers say they expect to buy a 3-D TV, down from one in four in 2011, according to the researcher.

Ten Network, which owns the Australian rights to televise the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has no plans for 3-D broadcasts, despite commitments from Olympic organizers to shoot events in 3-D, according to one report.

NBC, which owns the U.S. rights to broadcast the games, has yet to say whether it will air any of its Sochi coverage in 3-D. The network will announce programming plans later in fall, "as we get closer to the games," according to a corporate spokesperson for Comcast, NBC’s parent company.

Of course, the format has its advocates, who say the technology is still in its early stages and is increasingly popular in some overseas markets, such as China.

3net, a 2-year-old joint venture of Discovery Communications, Sony and IMAX, offers a stream of documentaries, movies and other programs that amounts to nearly 24/7 availability in more than 40 million U.S. households through distribution deals with Comcast, DirectTV, Netflix and two other affiliates. The network also airs 3-D programs in the United Kingdom, Italy, China and elsewhere.

By the end of this year, 3net will debut three new series, four major specials and new episodes of several continuing series, according to Tom Cosgrove, the company's president and chief executive. He declined to provide additional details, nor would he say how many viewers are watching the network's shows.

While the United States has been slow to warm up to 3-D TV, it's taking off in Asia and especially in China, Cosgrove says.

"There’s been a push internally by the government -- they've launched a 3-D channel," Cosgrove says. "Manufacturers have embraced it as a platform."

Fans of 3-D TV are adamant about the format's value. "I love my 3-D TV, and routinely enjoy using (its) 3-D capabilities," wrote one commenter on a previous MSN Money report on consumer gadgets that bombed. "If ESPN is discontinuing 3-D programming, it's because no one wants to watch the mediocre programming available on that channel. . . . 3-D TV is not a bad idea, just poorly executed by certain networks."

But detractors can't get around the required use of special glasses to view the images.

"I have 3-D TV. I watched it when I opened the box and haven't used it since," one commenter wrote. "I'm up and down while watching TV. I can't be wearing glasses."

There are technologies that make it possible to watch 3-D images without the goofy glasses, but they might be overshadowed soon by other advanced TV technologies.

Toshiba has introduced a glasses-free version of 3-D TV, but according to a CNET report, the viewing angles are restricted and sets sold in Europe cost about $10,000 last year.

A new version of HDTV known as OLED HDTV gives viewers a similar immersive experience, although it is not 3-D. The first of these gigantic, curved screens are set to hit U.S. retailers' shelves this week, with price tags close to $15,000.

Researchers are coming up with other work-arounds. Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz have invented "3D+2D" TV that lets people wearing 3-D glasses watch 3-D images at the same time as people without the glasses see 2-D images.

Makers of consumer electronics are banking that Ultra HD, also known as 4K, will be the next big thing in display technology. Over the next 12 months, TV analysts and reviewers predict an onslaught of Ultra HD or 4K offerings in TV sets, monitors, phones, laptops, projectors, content and services. 4K TV is "the HDTV experience on steroids," said John Taylor, an LG Electronics USA vice president, in a 2013 trend report issued by the Consumer Electronics Association.

To be safe, networks such as 3net are shooting shows in HD, 2-D, 3-D, Ultra HD and 4K "and every permutation you can come up with," so consumers can watch in whatever format they prefer, Cosgrove says.

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