Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Could 3D be the Blu-Ray of HDTVs?

Dealerscope has written about a CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) report that U.S. HDTV sales declined on both a units and dollars basis for the first time in 2011. The decline wasn't completely unexpected, because there was a huge increase in sales when digital television broadcasting replaced analog service, which made tens of millions of television receivers obsolete.

In 2006, consumer electronics companies and motion pictures studios hoped to make DVDs obsolete with Blu-Ray discs. At the time, DVDs were still breaking sales records, but motion picture studios were concerned about DVD piracy, and consumer electronics companies saw their profit margins on DVD players being eroded by Chinese manufacturers. Blu-Ray was supposed to be the solution to both groups' problems: It had enhanced anti-piracy systems for the studios (and could encourage consumers to replace their standard definition DVDs with high-definition Blu-Ray discs). In addition, Blu-Ray players required new licenses and were significantly more difficult to manufacture than DVD players, which kept the Chinese manufacturers on the sidelines (at least initially).

What both groups failed to foresee was the Great Recession, which forced consumers to go back to renting movies rather than buying them. That gave a huge boost to Netflix and Redbox, but it caused the overall market for DVDs to decline. Most consumers were also unwilling to pay the premium demanded for Blu-Ray players, so player and disc sales failed to compensate for DVD's decline. In response, consumer electronics manufacturers have had to drop the price of entry-level Blu-Ray players under $100. Now, digital streaming and downloads are depressing sales of physical media even further. Since most Blu-Ray players are compatible with one or more Internet movie services, they're encouraging expansion of streaming video without a commensurate increase in demand for Blu-Ray discs.

The CEA's sales results suggest that a similar scenario is playing out for 3D. Both consumer electronics companies and movie studios hope that 3D will spur a new round of TV purchases, and will stimulate sales of 3D-capable Blu-Ray players. However, the first generation of 3D HDTVs was expensive and required active glasses, which typically cost around $100 each. Glasses from one HDTV manufacturer generally don't work with televisions from other manufacturers. The increased cost, multiple formats and discomfort of wearing active glasses discouraged consumers from adopting 3D.

This year, at the Consumer Electronics Show, several manufacturers showed 3D systems that use less-expensive passive glasses or no glasses at all. However, early reviews state that the loss in resolution that some of these systems require in 3D mode (they can only display 25% of 1080P resolution) is noticeable and distracting. Some systems also use filters that distort conventional 2D video. The glasses-free systems require viewers to sit in specific places in order to see the 3D effect. The proliferation of 3D formats (active, passive, glasses-free, and variations of each approach) is likely to confuse consumers even more than last year. What's worse is that the problems with various 3D formats may not be clear in retail showrooms, but will become obvious once consumers get the TVs into their homes. That will lead to product returns and negative word of mouth, which will taint all the 3D products, even the best ones.

At the same time, millions of consumers are using HDTVs as the primary screen in their living rooms and tablets as a second screen that can augment the first screen in some cases and replace it in others. Consumers are buying tablets, which don't do 3D well but are portable, rather than 3D HDTVs. It's much too early to say that 3D in the home is dead, but the probability is increasing that 3D will be a niche format, in much the way that Blu-Ray is a niche.

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