Announcements this week of 3D TVs without the need for glasses may hurt more than help the 3DTV case. Those new units are not ready for prime time, and I think the announcements run the risk of the classic Osborne Computer mistake of the 1980s: Osborne was the leader in portable PCs (before laptops), but they were not compatible with the IBM PC during the period when the PC began to gain an architectural lock software. Osborne rushed to announce their next model would be PC compatible, and customers held off purchasing the current model. The company went bankrupt.
The Osborne mistake is now enshrined in business schools as what not to do. So why did some of the big Japanese TV makers jump the shark on 3DTV?
Start with the dreadfully poor outlook for 3DTVs. In my CES post last January, I found the push for 3DTV premature for three reasons:
- too little content – HDTV could leverage movies while broadcast caught up
- too sketchy an experience – the look was not that compelling
- too burdensome to use glasses
Shortly after CES, the early results suggested that 3DTV would be a bust. It was thought to be a gimmick, an expensive feature seeking a market, not a need driven by consumers. Samsung had to add warning labels to their 3DTV sets, that drinking and 3D don’t mix. I am not sure this is a real problem or over-anxious lawyering, but some people do report headaches or dizziness while wearing those 3D glasses.
About the same time, the big push by movie studios into 3D seemed to be missing expectations. After Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, the new releases were disappointments. Hollywood is in the doldrums and the studios have been pushing 3D as a way to increase ticket prices and hold theatrical revenues up even as ticket sales droop. Nonetheless, Hollywood is persisting, and recently it was announced that the highly-anticipated Hobbit movies will be in 3D.
As with color and HD, it is believed that sports will drive 3D demand on TV. Some leagues like baseball and hockey are already streaming 3D broadcasts. (This may cause some bandwidth challenges, as 3D will have to coexist with normal HD.) ESPN launched a 3D channel just in time for the World Cup.
All well and good, and yet there has been no rush to 3DTV. It is coming too quickly after major upgrades to HDTVs, and is way behind in compelling content. And of course has those darned glasses.
Big news then that this week several makers including Toshiba announced a 3DTV without glasses. When I was at CES I asked when this would be out commercially, and heard promises of “five to seven years.” Naked-eye approaches have been known for a while, and are being developed across the TV makers. Here is a video by Toshiba showcasing their new naked 3DTVs:
The Toshiba models have modest sized screens, and need to handle nine viewing angles, which today requires lower resolution images – they are less than HD sets in 3D mode. They have very narrow viewing angles, and you have to get really close to see the effect. The Toshiba models are designed for niche markets, and may not even sell there.
In a nutshell, we are still a years away from commercial HD-quality naked-eye 3DTV sets.
My take: the Japanese often do this, to one-up each other, with less of an eye to the impact on consumers than they should. They launch inside their own echo chamber. The visibility to the consumer of a better 3DTV in the future may suppress 3DTV sales in the present, but the Japanese are probably betting these announcements will be little noticed. Instead, inside their echo chamber, they can use the promise of naked eye 3D to overcome the real problem: the dearth of 3D content for TV. The promise of these sets “soon” should sustain the development of more 3D content for TV.