Static: Can 3-D TV come back from the dead?

George Lang: Companies have had minimal success moving televisions with three-dimensional views.
BY GEORGE LANG Modified: January 13, 2014 at 3:00 pm •  Published: January 13, 2014

Three-dimensional television was supposed to be the great leap forward, but the promise of lifelike images in everyone's living rooms is starting to look lifeless.

Of all the news coming out of this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the cratering of the 3-D television market delivered the biggest jolt. On Jan. 6, television manufacturer Vizio announced it was pulling the plug on its 3-D televisions. While the Vizio brand does not have the cache of higher-end manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung, Sharp and LG, it can be seen as a bellwether for the industry. By some metrics, it is the top-selling TV manufacturer in the North American market, thanks in part to competitive pricing and its availability in mass-market retailers such as Walmart.

As the tech site The Verge reported, Vizio was busy at CES pushing its 4K televisions, which offer about twice the resolution of 1080i HD units. These ultra-high-definition televisions might not add another dimension to a football game, but viewers can count the blades of grass on the turf.

After 2009's “Avatar” shifted Hollywood's emphasis toward 3-D for its big-budget theatrical releases, it seemed natural that 3-D television would follow suit. But according to MSN Money, 3-D TV sales increased by only 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013. Broadcasters reacted swiftly: in June 2013, ESPN announced it was discontinuing its 3-D coverage, and BBC followed suit in July.

So what happened? The short-term failure of 3-D television can be chalked up to two major factors. The first was something I call “upgrade fatigue.” In 2009 and 2010, the screens got bigger and the prices got smaller on 1080i 120mhz TVs, and a lot of old analog televisions got literally kicked to the curb on garbage day after Christmas those years. Consequently, Blu-ray players replaced a lot of DVD players, because those big, new 1080i LED televisions pointed out all the limitations of DVD.

Then the manufacturers started pushing 3-D TVs and Blu-ray players, just after a huge number of consumers had shelled out for two-dimensional HD systems during a slow economy. The research firm DisplaySearch reports that the average U.S. consumer replaces televisions once every 6.9 years, so for most people, the 3-D TV revolution simply happened too soon.

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