The Visualist Blog

CES Commentary: 3D Television & CES Hype Machine

As expected, 3D televisions line the show floor this week at CES clamoring for attention like vendors in a Beijing night market. It reminds me of those car lots full of last year’s SUVs  still waiting for an owner on the outskirts of most American cities. When I see something like this, you have to wonder about the market forces that led to the explosion of production on the supply-side. Will demand keep pace?

My thinking is probably counter to popular belief, but I am fairly sure that the adoption of 3D television will be far slower than predicted. Although the traditional argument about the social problems of 3D glasses has merit, I think there are large market forces that will act as obstacles to adoption. Firstly, the number of folks that recently upgraded to their HD television sets is simply too large.  A recent Nielson study seems to support this. Their data shows that most consumers are fence-sitting on the purchase of a new 3D television and, after exposure to the 3D experience, they tend to want to wait. The reasons for consumer disappointment can be debated, and is probably the subject of a different post.

We as consumers have grown accustomed to the general pace of innovation and upgrade cycles.  Unlike other consumer electronic devices, the ebb and flow of television changes has been fairly steady over the past 60 years. As a consequence, we are willing to upgrade our television set, but only infrequently to keep pace with major developments.

In the past, the introduction of new video standards has acted as the metronome as new technology induces mass adoption about every twenty years:  widely available commercial television was available in the late 1930s, color television in 1951, solid-state televisions addressed color drift in the 1970s, digital television in the 1990s, 2010 full HD becomes widely adopted.  Although one could argue that the adoption rate of new television technologies is accelerating, you’d be betting against the trend, and, perhaps more fundamentally, you’d be assuming the television set can be grouped-in with the adoption rates of other consumer electronics devices.  I believe that this is a mistake, television has a number of social, historical, and technical reasons that it can’t be viewed in the same way that, for example, the cellphone can.

Secondly, to assume that 3D television will quickly become mainstream is to assume that a large amount of broadcast 3D content will become available.  This means that the content generating infrastructure has to be willing to bear the cost of 3D production and broadcast.  Although in the U.S. there are limited broadcasts of 3D content based on “high-end” events that can pay for themselves via increased advertising, it is hard to imagine a similar market dynamic in other countries.  How will the UK pay for 3D broadcast? A fixed license fee structure,  will probably not support the additional cost of 3D a large number of consumers already have sets.  It is even harder to imagine channels like the BBC moving to 3D broadcast.

So, while it is interesting to weave myself through the parking lot of 3D television sets, it is hard for me to imagine them living up to the promise of broad adoption at the pace other, more personal gadgets I’m seeing here at the show will.

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