3D TV: An idea whose time has come - and gone?

Jul 30, 2013

Kim Shillinglaw, the person in charge of the BBC's soon-to-be defunct 3D output, says the corporation's research shows that viewers find the whole rigmarole involved in watching a 3D production (glasses, darkened room, sitting in exactly the right place in front of the screen, etc., to be such an off-putting performance that many just give up on the whole thing.

Add to that the fact that the population of the UK continues to endure its N'th year of busted banks, recession, government-enforced financial austerity, ever-rising food, energy, petrol and travel costs and real, long-term reductions in their standard of living and disposable income it is not surprising that 3D TVs don't loom very large in their spending plans.

That's the British experience - but 3D TV all over the world has failed to live-up to the PR attention and spin that has been lavished on it all over the world. TVs continue to get bigger, better and smarter but 3D hasn't caught the popular imagination.

For years on end now, at industry shows such as the splendid IBC exhibition and conference held every September in Amsterdam and annual January extravaganza that is CES in Las Vegas, manufacturers have demonstrated different variations of 3D TV. TelecomTV has footage of these filmed over a decade and more but few of the devices and technologies have made it beyond the prototype stage.

Lenticular screens and autostereoscopic TVs may well be the wave of the future but, at present, it is the dreaded, incompatible, uncomfortable glasses that are causing people to turn-off from 3D TV.

The novelty of having to wear the things soon palls. The glasses reduce both chrominance and luminance to unacceptable levels. Most 3D films (with a few honourable exceptions such as "Life of Pi") are simply too dark and muddy-looking to be worth watching. The glasses also significantly diminish high-definition displays. All-in-all, it's a disappointing mess.

And, if the technology sucks the life out of the viewing experience, what about content? Most is poor and despite all the promises, almost none of it is live. The BBC has thrown in the 3D towel. ESPN is following suit. Others will do the same. There is almost no downloadable or streaming 3D content anywhere, and even the video games industry has failed to capitalise on 3D.

3D has failed basically because there was hardly any consumer demand for it in the first place. The technology was given the hard-sell by the industry itself as it tried to increase revenues in an increasingly saturated 2D HD TV world. That didn't work because no matter how the industry may shout, and no matter how much it spends on marketing and advertising, consumers won't buy what they are not interested in.

So then, is 3D TV a technological cul-de-sac or will it come bounding back and actually fulfill some of its promise once auto-stereoscopic screens arrive? After all, most modern TVs come with 3D-functionality already built-in, it's just that the capability may not be enabled on many of them. That said, more and more analysts are coming around to the viewpoint that 3D TV will always be a niche rather than a mass market.

For its part, Sony has given-up on the technology to focus on the Next Big Thing: 4K Ultra HD. Watching a show in 4K Ultra HD is quite an experience. The clarity and colour has to seen to be believed, but it is an unforgiving medium and audiences are going to get quite a shock when they see some of their favourite actors in Ultra HD - literally warts and all. Make-up can only go so far with disguising reality under the lights of a 4K Ultra HD broadcast. In our heart-of-hearts we understand that our heroes and heroines have feet of clay, well, now we'll be able to see them galumphing about the place in their muddy socks.

Perhaps 3D will get a boost when it can be experienced on big 4K Ultra HD TVs but then again it might still be regarded as it is now, a pretty pointless appendage.

That said, those of you out there in the UK with a 3D TV will be able to enjoy the Beeb's output until the end of November, when the 3D channel will be turned-off. But before then there's the very special Doctor Who 50th Anniversary episode to watch - in 3D.

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