OPINION: Saving the future of 3D

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Sony HMZ-T1

Sony's HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer - is it going to revitalise interest of 3D TV? (Image: Sony)

3D television has performed exceedingly below market and manufacturer expectations. As a whole, it has been shunned by the majority of consumers and I’m not even going to bother sugar-coating the predicament of 3D television with the hope of dreams and aspirations which may or may not be realised, I’m sure you’re sick of that now. 3D has failed and there’s no way that statement can possibly be re-angled to make it look good

Personally, I do see value in 3D and genuinely find it as a great innovation that potentially opens a lot of doors for new user interfaces and interactivity. Unfortunately, 3D as it has been used thus far hasn’t contributed to this cause, and has failed to excite in the arena of content consumption. I realise that what I’m writing is really easy to acknowledge in retrospect, and I’m not going to lie, I didn’t expect 3D to be a runaway success but I expected it to be a heck of a lot more successful than it is now. Looking back, there are three big reasons why 3D has failed – glasses, ‘the excitement factor’ and content, or lack thereof.

The whole 3D dilemma is very much a Catch-22 situation…

So, glasses. I hate them, you hate them and we all hate them. Those abominable ‘active-shutter’ glasses are 3D’s most publicised anathema and rightly so. Glasses don’t make us feel attractive, nor are they easy on our wallets. For at least 50 bucks a piece, the investment that most families are going to have to bank on 3D televisions may very well add up to $4000 – $5000 if they want to have enough glasses to satisfy guests. And why would we bother spending so much cash on hardware with such little native content and software?

The whole 3D dilemma is very much a Catch-22 situation – content producers aren’t willing to bet big on 3D production because the potential consumer demographic simply isn’t large enough to deem it highly profitable. Conversely, one of the primary reasons why the consumer base for 3D is relatively small is because there’s not enough available 3D content to justify an upgrade or the price hike. Now, most technologies start off in much the same way, like they say, there’s a first for everything – there’s also a start for everything. In the smartphone game, players don’t start off with hundreds of thousands of apps in their market like Android and iOS, they’ve got to earn it and are placed in much the same Catch-22 situation that 3D technology finds itself in right now. But then we have a look at Windows Phone which was a new player in the game but managed to get 30,000 apps in the relatively small span of 10 months. We ask ourselves how and why? Heck webOS has been around for over a year longer and is miles behind in its app count. The single difference is perceived potential and excitement. Forget Windows Phone’s single digit market share – developers are seeing the potential and are excited over the product and are therefore more inclined to develop for the platform. This is and was 3D’s problem, nobody got excited.

It wasn’t a matter of marketing, it’s a generally accepted rule that marketing alone cannot sustain a poor product. Manufacturers have failed to realise that the same things that make 3D great in the cinemas cannot be translated to the living room. People enjoy 3D in the theatres because the sheer size of the display really allows the 3D effect to turn from a fun little gimmick to a tremendous contribution. The absence of any noise or distractions apart from the green-lit exit signs bring the display to the limelight, making the three dimensional effect seemingly more spectacular. This is why 3D simply doesn’t work well enough in the living room. A living room can only be so large, and I have never seen a living room completely devoid of potential distractions. Even then, the plainest of white walls can augur an unnecessary diversion.

3D isn’t being hampered by the embracing invitations of lower cost televisions, in fact, I have no hesitation in saying that consumers will be more than willing to pay extra for the extra dimension had it simply been a better product with a much higher value proposition and larger and more thriving ecosystem of content encapsulating it. It’s promises like these that drive sales. 3D needs salvation from the limitations of its own self, which brings to mind Sony’s headmounted 3D display.

Placing 3D essentially on your head and having it shine directly into your face solves the limitations that are hampering the uptake of current 3D technology. Let’s have a bit of a spec run of Sony’s HMZ T1 head-mounted 3D display – the contraption sports two 0.7 inch OLED displays each with a resolution of 1280 X 720, and 5.1 surround sound speakers. In the grand scheme of things, these specs are largely impertinent but I suppose it’s handy to know. The concept of the product however is the thing that has potential to turn around the fortune of 3D technology.

3D isn’t being hampered by the embracing invitations of lower cost televisions…

People have said that using Sony’s head-mounted 3D display is equivalent to viewing a 19 metre display from 18 metres away. Perceived size that monumental is almost equivalent to watching 3D in the theatre. Additionally, by its very nature there are no distractions to steal the limelight from the spectacular dual OLEDs and three dimensional effect. Technology like this is a gamers dream, moreover, it enters into a realm of augmented reality that no product has been able to achieve in the past. Unfortunately, we have to take the bad with the good, and depending on who you are this ‘bad’ may very well work advantageously for you. Anyhow, having 3D attached to your face eliminates the social factor of television.

Gamers and virtual world enthusiasts only form a small part of television users, TV is still primarily a means of passive content devouring. So, how much of television enjoyment is actually supplemented by the social factor of enjoying it with our friends and families…and our pets. When watching TV does the main pleasure come from the content available on screen or does it come from being able to share this with others. It’s an interesting psychological question. Based on experiences of my own, I think the social factor of TV is important but not overpowering to the point in which television and film simply isn’t enjoyable without company. I watch TV alone just fine, but I always desire someone to accompany me, to share a laugh.

Head-mounted 3D will not replace 3D television as a result of the fact that watching TV with others is irreplaceable. But head-mounted 3D, if embraced by multiple OEMs may just be the underpinnings of a renewed excitement in three dimensional technology which will open the wallets of consumers and spark more action from content producers.

Image quality and pixel density are not factors that are instrumental in three dimensional television, hence manufacturer’s constant focus and espousal with active-shutter glasses given its ability to maintain 1080P resolution is off target. People enjoy 3D for the 3D effect purely, I’m sure only a videophile will lay a finger on the halved pixel density in the face of a third dimension. Polarised 3D glasses are a better bet because they’re cheaper, easier to manufacture and eliminate many of the traditional disadvantages that come with electronic glasses. Consumers simply haven’t warmed up to the idea of spending up to $100 on active-shutter glasses when polarised glasses can be purchased for merely a dollar at the cinema.

Back to the original topic at hand – how to save 3D. Manufacturers need to start embracing polarised 3D technology, the extra cost in active-shutter just doesn’t measure up for the end consumer. Head-mounted 3D is an innovation that has potential in multiple areas, and should therefore be heavily invested into being turned mainstream. Lastly, the applications of 3D itself need a little adjustment. So far, the core of 3D lies without a doubt in content consumption. Through 3D smartphones, digital cameras and camcorders we’re elevating into the realm of 3D content creation. However, one area that has been overlooked is 3D manipulation, interactivity and interface design, I see endless potential there.