Real People Put 3D TV to the Test

We're hearing a lot about 3D television these days- from TV manufacturers, directors, journalists and pundits. But do consumers like it? And will they pay for it?

To find out, I convened a mini focus group of adults in their 30s, 40s, and 50s,; a teenager; and a pair of kids under 10. We met at the Samsung Experience store in New York City a few weeks ago. After watching a wild assortment of clips-from The Daily Show to a Dunkin Donuts commercial to Monsters vs. Aliens-they had a mildly favorable impression. But no one was jumping up to buy a new TV and a pile of expensive active-shutter LCD glasses.

Some of the test team. In the front row, from left to right: Lisa, Alanna, Suzanne. In back: Anthony, Tom.

Since then, ESPN launched its 3D service with the World Cup. So I went back to watch the high-end sports coverage and talk to more folks.

Everyone, on both occasions, found something to like. For a few it was sports-the World Cup and a basketball game. Others went gaga for Transformers 2, and one spectator really did enjoy the commercials. The viewers didn't unanimously like any particular clip, however. And while younger folks were sometimes more enthusiastic, the adults were bigger fans at other times. No one wanted to shell out for the experience at home.

Content is King

While specially equipped TVs and Blu-ray players are gradually rolling out, there is little to watch on them. In addition to ESPN, there is exactly one movie-a Blu-ray disc of Monsters vs. Aliens.

To bridge the content gap, some sets can convert regular video into 3D. And the results were surprisingly good on Samsung's 55-inch C9000 LED HDTV. That particular item lists for a mind-numbing $7,000; but Samsung promises the same 3D performance from a line of sets starting at $1,700 for a 46-inch LCD. (Best Buy sells a basic 46-inch Samsung for about $800.)

Monsters vs. Aliens was one of the biggest hits.

Though anything can be 3D, the gang agreed that not everything should be. While watching American Idol, Lisa, a woman in her 40s, said, "It functioned perfectly well. But the function detracted from the content." Suzanne, also in her 40s and the one tech journalist in the group, pretty much agreed. "It was nice," she said. But "it wasn't a must-see for me." Suzanne added that she always gets headaches watching 3D, both in the theater and on the TVs she's tested.

One surprise hit was The Daily Show. The bright, super-sharp HD images transferred seamlessly to 3D. "[This has] the most depth of any one," said Tom, in his fifties, "It attracts me more...I felt like I was almost in the set."

Tom's 15-year-old son Anthony was the one person who seemed to like everything, pronouncing most clips to be "cool" or "really good." Among his favorites were Transformers 2 and a basketball game between Atlanta and Orlando, converted into 3D. "When they put the ball up for the jump shot...it seemed sharper," he explained. But it wasn't a generational thing. Lisa, "a big basketball fan" also loved it because she could better see how the players were moving around the court. Suzanne agreed, but added, "In terms of the headache I get from watching 3D, the tradeoff isn't worth it." Anthony's dad Tom said his eyes were hurting.

If younger generations are most receptive to high tech such as 3D, Suzanne's kids don't fit in. Alanna, nearly 9, seemed unimpressed by anything she saw, even clips from one of her favorite shows, iCarly. Alanna was shy about speaking up, but Lisa had a theory. "The content didn't matter," if it was in 3D, she said. "So the effects, not that much." Alanna's 5-year old brother Zach wasn't wowed by anything, even Monsters vs. Aliens. His one observation: The reflections on the glossy screen were annoying.

Three generations up the ladder, however, Tom raved about the animated movie. ‘This is 3D as it ought to be!" he exclaimed.

Goooaaal!

Sports coverage drove the HD craze. Can it do the same for 3D? Over the World Cup's opening weekend, I went back to the Samsung Experience to find out. At the showroom, I joined a 30-something German honeymoon couple transfixed by the Australia vs. Germany game playing the same C9000 set that the group had watched earlier. (I happen to speak German, so I knew what they were saying.)

During the close-ups, shot at eye-level with the players, the husband Jan often exclaimed "geil!" which basically means "awesome!"

During a break in the game, they gave more feedback. Astrid, who like Jan is in her thirties, said "For the wide angle view of the field, it's not such a big deal." But she agreed with her new husband that "For the close-ups, like the corner kicks, it's cool" They had also seen the 2D-3D conversion on other Samsung sets. And like the first group, they were impressed with the quality.

Is 3D Worth It?

At the end of the first group's viewing, I asked them about cost. Would they spend several hundred dollars more for a 3D TV and Blu-ray player, and several hundred dollars for a few pair glasses? Here we had consensus: No.

Suzanne, wise to the intricacies of TV tech, pointed out that 3D is just one of the features in new high-end sets, along with Internet video and better screens. "For me, it's about getting a great TV," she said. "I would spend a few hundred dollars more for the picture quality." But she wouldn't buy the glasses until they were cheaper and she had more to watch with them.

Suzanne eyes the one 3D movie that viewers can buy today.

Glasses, in fact, were the biggest obstacle. "You're going to ask friends and family to spend $150-$200 on a pair of glasses?" Tom asked. The cost would be prohibitive if he wanted to invite friends over for a football game or a movie. The group was simply incredulous when I explained that glasses from one manufacturer wouldn't work with TVs from another. Third-party universal models are coming out, however; and Samsung has vaguely promised future interoperable models.

Reactions were the same at the World Cup screening. While I was watching, a family came up to look at the TV. I offered the boy, about 4, my pair of glasses. He tried them for about a second, then pulled them off. His dad, probably in his 40s, was about as enthusiastic. "I like the TV, but will probably never buy the glasses," he said, adding, "Only one percent of the programming is in 3D. And then you gotta buy the $500 player." (Samsung's BD-C6900 actually lists for $400.)

My new German friends felt the same. "We would pay a little more," said Astrid, "because we're technology freaks." But she felt the premium was too much today. "We just bought our first flat screen in the fall," she added," saying it would be a while before they got another TV.

Tom, from the first group, may have summed up everyone's opinion when he said "I could see buying this in maybe five years, when there's more content and cheaper glasses"

(Sean Captain is a strategist for consumer insights firm Iconoculture, advising companies on media, entertainment and technology issues. Thanks to Samsung for providing a private viewing space with all its finest 3D gear and allowing us to watch whatever we wanted on it.)

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