The 3D Revolution Is Coming

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3D is back. And this time, it's making a big statement. The concept isn't new, of course--the first 3D motion picture dates back to the turn of the twentieth century. But a growing string of recent Hollywood releases, cemented by the runaway success of Avatar , has returned 3D to our cultural consciousness.

For the first time, though, 3D is being positioned not just for theatrical and professional venues but also for homes. Few observers expect this sea change to happen overnight--but it is coming.

The consumer electronics industry has been putting the elements for a 3D revolution into place surprisingly quickly. Every major manufacturer has revealed its 3D plans for 2010, with most companies setting a summer launch for their 3D-enabled televisions. Summer will also see 3D-enabled Blu-ray players. For filmmakers, a 3D camera will arrive in the fall: Panasonic's $21,000, professional-grade Full HD camcorder will be able to record video from each of its twin lenses to SDHC cards.

Broadcasters are getting into the act, too. BSkyB is among the networks working on 3D channels. ESPN's channel, launching in June, will show 85 sporting events in 3D. And Sony is partnering with Discovery and Imax to have a 3D channel by 2011.

Film content is already available, and will be growing thanks to the Avatar effect. Last year 17 3D films came out; more than a dozen such titles are scheduled for 2010. And 2011 will likely be a banner year for 3D movies as Hollywood rushes to replicate Avatar's success.

3D's Growing Appeal

Since 3D theatrical releases routinely earn more revenue than their 2D counterparts, it's no shock that Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry are eager to bring 3D into the home. And the focus isn't just on movies: 80 percent of PC games are currently available in 3D.

"Consumers are willing to pay more money to watch a movie in 3D than to watch it in 2D," notes Jennifer Colegrove, director of display technologies at DisplaySearch, citing 3D's immersiveness. "So [manufacturers] are naturally thinking about 3D for the home--on a computer, a notebook, a TV, a mobile phone."

Research into what consumers want has begun in earnest. Sony is partnering with CBS to study what audiences expect from home 3D. Last year the Consumer Electronics Association and the Entertainment Technology Center released a study in which 50 percent of surveyed consumers said they would pay more for a 3D TV; 40 percent of the respondents preferred 3D to 2D.

We don't know how much companies will charge for 3D TVs (or content). Clearly, 3D represents a new revenue stream, and consumer electronics makers will put some premium on it (simply because they'll have 3D on their top-tier products). But industry executives have told me that they are aware of the risk of stifling 3D's prospects if they price it into the stratosphere.

Another factor that might hold back 3D's potential is the "dorky" image of 3D glasses. Special glasses are a requirement for all variations of the active-shutter technology that television makers are using. RealD is providing glass technology to a number of TV manufacturers, but the eyepiece design may vary dramatically. Right now, there's no guarantee that glasses will be compatible across manufacturers (though the Consumer Electronics Association is trying to get companies to agree on this point). The glasses won't be cheap, either--and 3D-enabled TVs may not ship with them by default. So far, only Sony's top-of-line Bravia LX900 HDTV will come packaged with two pairs of glasses.

Few experts see 3D claiming a big chunk of the market. According to DisplaySearch, just over 1 million 3D-ready TVs will ship in 2010 (representing 0.1 percent of total shipments); by 2018, the number will be 64 million (20 percent of the market). That's less than the CEA's estimate of 4.3 million 3D-capable TV sets shipping in 2010. DisplaySearch expects 3D-ready monitors to grow to 10 million by 2018 (3.6 percent penetration), and it foresees a similar trajectory for 3D laptop systems. Mobile phones will be the largest 3D-display shipment by 2018, with 71 million units, DisplaySearch predicts.

The challenge will be to get hardware into homes. "It's about presenting enough of a compelling story to get people excited about buying new equipment," says Rick Dean, chairman of the 3D@Home Consortium and VP of strategic development for THX. "New Blu-ray players are required. New displays are required. But it's not just about how we're going to deliver 3D content; it's about the user experience."

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