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Volume 21 No. 2
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Experts debate 3-D’s future

There was arguably no bigger advocate for 3-D TV in the home than ESPN. It set up a dedicated 3-D TV channel, ESPN 3D, and signed carriage agreements enabling it to potentially reach more than 75 million homes. It broadcast several of its biggest events, including the World Cup, Masters and BCS college football championship game, in the format. It even developed a blended system in which both 2-D and 3-D feeds could be extracted from the same production.

But in the end it wasn’t nearly enough, and when ESPN announced this month it planned to shut down the channel by the close of 2013, it provided a potential death knell to the format.

Set manufacturers had already begun to shift away from 3-D TV. After several years of aggressively trying to use 3-D as a major selling point to accelerate set replacement cycles, the manufacturers over the last 18 months saw consumer adoption for 3-D TV lagging for numerous reasons. Many didn’t like the glasses that greatly inhibited the social elements of TV viewing, particularly for sports, and in most cases were proprietary to specific manufacturers. Some consumers saw 3-D TV as literally nauseating.

Also problematic for many sports fans were the different camera angles required for 3-D TV broadcasts, angles that provided radically altered views compared with now-industry standard views of sports in 2-D TV.

John Skipper of ESPN says 3-D is “not for an everyday viewing experience.”
That left ESPN in a more difficult spot. Without the full support of the electronics industry, and with consumer interest lagging, ESPN 3D never generated a big enough audience to actually show up in Nielsen ratings. As part of ESPN’s shutdown of the channel, personnel involved in the effort were included in the company’s recent, high-profile round of layoffs.

“This is still something that can work in the cinema, for maybe some of your big, ‘wow’ major events. But it’s not for an everyday viewing experience,” said John Skipper, ESPN president. “We’re still believers in it, and we could get back into it quickly if needed. But right now, it’s just not the sort of thing where you can have your friends over to watch the game and bring out the chips and dip.”

ESPN, like many other networks and leagues, is exploring the realm of 4K TV, which offers significantly greater picture resolution than current high-definition (see related story). But Skipper acknowledged it’s still very early days for that technology, and it’s likely a “three- to five-year horizon” before 4K is truly mainstream.

Other industry executives are not yet ready to give up on 3-D despite its recent choppy history. Some see a day in the not-too-distant future in which 3-D is incorporated into 4K sets and without glasses. Several 3-D TV prototypes not requiring glasses have appeared over the last two years at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Those prototypes have not been particularly immersive, however, and required a viewer to stay in a particular spot to get the 3-D effect.

“3-D as an in-home TV application right now is essentially dead,” said Rich Zabel, vice president of Eastern region sales for Harris Broadcast, which develops equipment used for television broadcasts. “But looking down the road, the kind of research manufacturers are continuing to do in glasses-less technology, I can definitely foresee a situation where 4K, glasses-less 3-D, and particularly higher frame rates come together in one killer product that gets 3-D back into the home. That’s probably several years away still. But there are a lot of people working on this from a lot of different angles.”