The Curse of 3D TV

Television makers think three dimensions are the next big thing after HD. God, I hope not.

By  |  Friday, September 3, 2010 at 5:10 pm

(At Panasonic’s IFA booth: People using 3D glasses and monitors to watch the live women in front of their faces.)

If you determine the big story here at the IFA tech show here in Berlin based on raw square footage in the booths, there’s no question what it is: 3D TV is everywhere.

The massive booths of consumer-electronics giants such as Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and Toshiba are dominated by 3D. There’s 3D that requires pricey active-shutter glasses. There’s 3D that uses cheaper passive specs. (There’s even 3D from the Fraunhofer Institute that doesn’t need glasses.) There are 3D games and 3D Blu-Ray players and 3D soccer broadcasts and 3D LCD sets and 3D plasmas and 3D projectors and giant walls made out of 3D screens.

Sony even projected its big press conference (hosted by CEO Sir Howard Stringer and including a performance by pianist Lang Lang) in 3D on a giant screen, expecting the reporters on the scene to don glasses to watch presentations which were happening right in front of them, live and in person.

All the 3D at the show had one thing in common: It’s lousy.

I’m not saying it’s all equally lousy: Some of it (especially at Panasonic’s booth) was at least somewhat better than I expected. Much of it was unusually blurry–some of the sets that required glasses looked only slightly better than Fraunhofer’s no-specs technology  demo. None of it rose to the level of being good, and I came away thinking that the level of hoopla was bizarre given the lackluster products being hyped.

3D TV occupies so much IFA real estate because the electronics industry thinks that teeming masses of people are going to be willing to buy new TVs and don uncomfortable, expensive glasses in order to watch three-dimensional content. I think consumers are smarter than that. I think will prove to be a fad–or, at least, a mistake.

Let’s take it as a given that issues like proprietary glasses, a dearth of content, and shortsighted deals that limit particular movies to specific manufacturers’ sets will go away over the next year or two. Let’s also assume that 3D picture quality improves rapidly and ghosting, blurriness, artifacts, and other visual issues go away. 3D still won’t make TV more realistic–at best, you get a sort of 2 1/2-D effect that (as my friend Steve Wildstrom reminded me) is akin to an oversized View Master scene. It doesn’t make it easier to suspend disbelief–it’s an ongoing reminder that you’re watching a piece of photographic trickery.

Perversely, the 3D showings of live events at the show, such as Sony’s press conference, served mostly as a useful reminder of how artificial this “3D” is. In person, Sir Howard and Lang Lang looked like people; on the 3D screen, the versions on the jumbo 3D screen resembled humongous puppets.

As a medium, 3D remains remarkably self-trivializing. Virtually nobody who works with it can resist thrusting stuff at the camera, just to make clear to viewers that they’re experiencing the miracle of the third dimension. When Lang Lang banged away at his piano during Sony’s event, a cameraman zoomed in and out on the musical instrument for no apparent reason, and one of the company’s representatives kept robotically shoving his hands forward. Hey, it’s 3D–watch this!

Now, new technologies are certainly allowed to call attention to themselves. (1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first popular talkie, is mostly a silent film–except when Al Jolson breaks out in song.) But 3D isn’t new. It’s existed for sixty years in one form or another. And almost all of it is still merely a needy, attention-grabbing novelty, barely more dignified than Smell-O-Vision.

This 1981 SCTV sketch parodied 1950s 3D, but it could have been referring to most of the content I’ve seen at IFA:

The more  3D TV I saw at the show, the more irritating it all got. I’ve been writing about technology for twenty years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an alleged Next Big Thing that’s left me so cold.

Could 3D TV redeem itself? Sure. It would need to work without glasses, for one thing. It would have to be at least as crisp and easy on the eyeballs as high-definition 2D, and it would have to simulate three dimensions rather than multiple layers of flat paperdoll-like objects. And you’d have to be able to watch it without giving any thought whatsoever to the fact that you’re watching 3D TV.

What do you think the chances are we’ll see anything like that at any electronics show in 2011, 2012, or even 2020 or 2030?

(Full disclosure: I participated in two panels at IFA and the conference covered my travel costs to be here.)


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50 Comments For This Post

  1. Tired_ Says:

    Of course we will! 3D will get all popular, and be the "next big thing" every ten years or so, until we have holodecks (aka, acceptable 3D).

  2. Yanni Says:

    Yes.. and it makes Jackass the movie look great!

  3. Tom Ross Says:

    I hope this will be over within a year or two. I'm positive that I'll never buy a 3D TV.

    But I wonder, where did it come from? Is it only because of the Avatar movie?

  4. Jason Anderson Says:

    Well, you'll probably buy a TV with 3D compatibility. You just won't use it, or care about it. Like me. I wish this 3D fad would go away. It's only good for CGI movies in the theater, where it's acceptable to wear glasses. Not at home where you just look like a tool. Also, Avatar is overrated and I'm sick of that word.

  5. Lloyd Braun Says:

    "overrated" What's wrong with that word?

  6. Sam Doidge Says:

    I agree that 3D isn't going to be a success in the next couple of years.

    Needing glasses just isn't friendly. 87% of people using new technology have stated ease of use as the most important element, glasses while simple to put on; are far from painless.

  7. KevDog Says:

    This is a classic case of focusing on the technology while ignoring the environment. People are in their homes, not in a darkened movie theater. This is a supremely bad idea.

  8. JackRat Says:

    3D belongs in the toilet. It's funny how these electronics try and push this garbage down our throats. Sony tried with Betamax (their fault it didn't succeed) and Pioneer with the LaserDisc. They tried pushing 2 different HD standards and Blu-ray won. If they don't lower the price of these Blu-ray players and burners, it'll be another failure chalked to the idiocy of these companies. It seems many of them lack one crucial component: common sense.

  9. miles Says:

    I've called it since day one, 3D will flop, Holograms will prevail.

    Holograms have more than an entertainment value, for example, architecture.

  10. Lloyd Braun Says:

    "Holograms have more than an entertainment value, for example, architecture."

    What the hell does that even mean?

  11. alex Says:

    Holograms can usefully display more information than a 2D screen, whereas 3D TV cannot. The idea that one could swivel around a hologram of a building to focus on details and see angles of the building that would not be feasible with a 2D representation.

  12. @givoly Says:

    I couldn't agree more. The home environment is very different than theaters. This alone would supply many reasons why it will likely fail. There are more. My thoughts at Loved the 1950 parody…

  13. Alexander Says:

    " It would need to work without glasses, for one thing."
    You sure are aiming too high in a short term.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    Oh, I get that we're absolutely nowhere near having decent no-glasses 3D. But I don't think a technology that requires special eyewear is ever going to be transformative–especially for people like me who must attempt to wear both the 3D specs and our own glasses at the same time.


  15. Tim Robertson Says:

    3D is a joke, but the only ones laughing are the consumers, AT the manufacturers. We could, of course, blame James Cameron for making a fairly decent movie (albeit nothing at all original on any level) that was hugely popular because of this novelty of 3D, but in truth, the manufacturers are simply trying to bilk the consumers again. We wanted high def, large flat panel televisions. We want access to a boatload of content. We do not want to wear stupid plastic cheap glasses to watch an NFL game. But, alas, they (manufacturers) are ruled by marketing departments, and THAT is why you are seeing 3D. No real innovation at all.

  16. ediedi Says:

    Actually, this so-called 3D is as old as the brothers Lumiere's stereoscopic images. 2 diferent 2-d planes seen with each eye.
    It's ridiculous. In addition to not considering a 3-d tv, I promised myself not to see any more 3-d movies in theatres ever.

  17. becomepostal Says:

    Let's put it this way: what marketing is calling "3D TV" is in fact "stereoscopic TV".

    Real 3D TV is different. Technically, it can currently be implemented by dynamic holograms.

  18. Ron Says:


    3D video appears cold to me too. I can't experience it due to severe astigmatism. A trip to the eye doctor verified that my lenses were fine, and that the unusual shape of my eyeballs prevents me from seeing the 3D images. What I'm left with is seeing a double video image.

    Have we forgotten that 10-12% of all viewers can't see 3D video? We'll be nagging friends and relatives to turn the TV onto 2D mode for our sake.

  19. Greg Says:

    I also believe that what is being marketed today as 3D will turn out to be a big dud. For me, today's 3D (in all forms I have experienced), leads to fatigue after only a few minutes. I think it is because my brain always wants to focus on something other than what the cameras had been focusing on when the recording was made.

  20. @mehtars Says:

    this has potential– but the main drivers of 3d tv will be sports.

  21. anon Says:

    or porn.

  22. Florian Says:

    "simulate three dimensions rather than multiple layers of flat paperdoll-like objects"… wtf dude? It's called stereoscopic camera. And if you render CGI scenes it's a nobrainer since you don't even need one of those, just two render passes.

    Now if you meant to say that studios should stop doing cheesy 3d-ish effects and start using fully fledged 3d animations or stereoscopic 3d cameras I think you're absolutely right.

    Of course there's a sort of chicken and egg problem. because pretty much all footage that we have isn't 3D. But alas, there's solutions to that which do not involve cheesy paperplane effects: The scanning of film footage by an algorithm that automatically builds a mesh and texture representation of the scene, and then the re-rendering of each frame using the data gathered thus.

  23. Faithwrecker Says:

    The image processing capability of animal vision is incredibly complex, including humans, which has me inclined to believe nature had a pretty good reason to go to all the effort.
    It is up for debate whether the film & tv industries yet have the technology to convincingly utilize this wetware in our heads. And then there is the whole other issue of appropriate creative use.
    Even good stereoscopic images still aren't close to reality, the main reason I think so is because you can't change your point of view, at least with movies… but 2D film and tv has always been like that…. gaming will take it to another level.
    But seriously, looking at 2D image on a flat monitor relies on our vision dropping into a fall-back mode where we rely more on other depth cues (exaggerated depth of field, motion parallax, creative lighting, atmospherics etc).
    I reckon 3D is definitely here to stay, look how much money Avatar made.
    There is so much money being channeled into research that the limitations will gradually be conquered.
    If you still think it will fail, then I'd ask why did nature set us up with stereo vision in the first place? Did it make a mistake.
    When is the last time you rode a pushbike in peak hour city traffic with an eye patch on? Stereo is the natural way to see the world, technology will eventually catch up.
    I'm pretty keen to see the gaming and cinema industries converge… when we'll get interactive movies that playout via a game engine.
    But in the meantime, people will continue to pay to watch eye-candy visual effects, so plots will frequently suffer. But we'll also get the occasional gems.

  24. John Foggitt Says:

    One thing that 3D TV/movies cannot emulate is the REAL position of an object in front of another object. Your eyes will always have to focus on the same physical 2D screen but they will have to converge to see the pseudo-3D images. In real life, changing the convergence of our eyes ALWAYS involves a change of focus – unlike artificial "3D" – so our evolved true stereoscopic image processing system will have to learn new tricks if it has to converge the eyes to a close point yet still focus on a more distant point. Headaches? Eyestrain? probably. I have no plans to buy anything 3D – unnecessary expense AND don't forget the extra bandwidth required.

  25. John Foggitt Says:

    As for extra bandwidth, you have one of 3 options:
    1) twice the bandwidth OR
    2) a much more sophisticated video codec to decode twice the number of images OR
    3) reduced picture quality so that the extra 3D information can be squeezed into the same bandwidth.
    Personally, I'd far rather have a high quality 2D image than a poor quality 3D image. Let me go a stage further – I would rather watch a black and white movie with a decent plot than a colour movie full of special effects but a weak story line, and I can see 3D being exploited for special effects at the expense of a decent story.

  26. Matt Moses Says:

    I work in visual effects, and all the people I know do not like Stereo production – The only ones that say anything posirtive are the ones being employed at the moment… But stereo production is 4 times harder and more limiting than 2D traditional production. There are a huge number of things that "break" the effect, and at best the effect is pseudo3d. For home viewing, a whole new level of suck is coming, the exact kind of poorly executed 3D that James Cameron says will degrade the experience of 3D content – 3D is the Y2K of content watching… when it gets here, people will pretend that it didn't happen, it will be sheepishly groaned away by execs and there will be no good or bad effects – just a whole lot of TV's being ditched…like HDDVD players. Only then will it become blatantly obvious to the proponents of this mess that people never wanted this, and have no intention of participating/paying for it/using it.

  27. John Foggitt Says:

    Does anyone remember quadraphonic sound on LPs? Several different competing systems, all of which died because the technology simply couldn't squeeze the necessary information into the bandwidth required. Will 3D go the same way? I'm tempted to say "Yes" until we get true holographic 3D movies – the video equivalent of our modern surround sound systems.

  28. Josh Says:


    Remember the great big transition from black and white to color? There was so much lost!

  29. Aaron Says:

    Not all technology is progress – for every new hardware system that adds to the utility of entertainment, there are several that fall flat. B&W -> Color is not analogous to Flat -> Stereoscopic in any way other than sentence structure. Novelties do, and have existed… The difference this time is the insane marketing push… I don't think I've ever seen the hardware industry try so hard before. Maybe they're as afraid of a dying fad as we are of a sustained one. The next time you hear an industry insider talk about 3d as the 'next big thing', do yourself a favor and think 'Smell-o-Vision', not HDTV.

  30. Tech Says:

    I'm not reall impressed with 3D technology. It's not worth upgrading my television for.

  31. @jonathanmarks Says:

    The only 3D experience I get is a headache. I grant you certain cinema films are amazing, but live 3D TV is all over the place and the crews needed to do it (including stereographers) make it incredibly expensive to do properly. Hope the licence-fee isn't used for this. Give me 2D HD any day.

  32. vooying Says:

    LOL, I wont have anything that requires special glasses, its absurd!

  33. guest Says:

    XBox and PS3 are both going to jump into 3D big time. It's a lot easier to make use of the current 3D TV technology in a game than it is in a movie, and gamers won't care about having to wear glasses. I see this being popular with gamers in the short term.

  34. John Biggs Says:

    On the very short term, gamers will love 3D. The effect is very strong. As for 3DTVs, manufacturers are already clamming up about it. I'd link to the thing I wrote about it, but CG is getting malware warnings for some reason.

  35. Harry McCracken Says:

    I should do a "further thoughts about 3D" piece–I'm less completely skeptical about 3D gaming. At least for PC-based games–I've seen some decent demos. (The game demos at IFA weren't so hot.)


  36. John from Detroit Says:

    Well, you know the rule..

    Since the original analog television had saturated the market.. And thus, the cash cow had dried up.

    The industry then built a new cow (ATSC Digital television) and got the government to mandate we all buy fresh milk as it were.

    So now we have the next new cow.

    NOTE: I'm still watching an NTSC screen.

  37. Dian Says:

    ddo u need to wear these special glasses at all times to use this tv or is there a switch to switch over to 2D.

  38. Yacko Says:

    Yes, TVs will have a 2D fall back mode.

  39. Sam Sung Grrl Says:

    I know that at least some have a switch, not sure if all do, though.

  40. Christopher Beaver Says:

    I am a filmmaker, both documentaries and fiction. I would love to work in 3D. I've been a fan since the first 3D craze in 1953. As new technologies emerge there will often be one break-through mainstream film, then a handful of quickly made gimmicky films to follow, and then maybe the technology will stick. I love the sense of dimension and space 3D provides. I've experimented with documentary footage and stills over the past twenty years. Skies come alive. The flat 2D dimension of a desert expands into an extensive landscape. Instead of decrying the gimmicks, let's imagine for a moment a TV series like Lost in 3D with no other changes in the filming. Imagine a camera gliding through the rain forest to follow the characters. Not bad, huh? How about the recent musical Nine with Daniel Day-Lewis. In 2D a shadowy dark image. In 3D the shadow would have had shape and dimension and think of the moment the dancers kicked sand in the air. I would love to have seen Nine in 3D. Or perhaps No Country for Old Men might be more to your taste with its expansive opening landscapes. The first high-definition 3D television image I saw was in 1995. That presentation at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art showed the work of a Japanese architect, another great subject for spatial "enhancement." The viewing did require glasses no question about that. But the image was crisp, bright, and thrilling. The question is not 3D gimmicks versus 2D quality. The difference is in the creators of the film. 3D is pretty great. I wish all my films could have been in 3D. That's the way I saw them in my mind's eye . . . oh, and also widescreen when that was only a TV gimmick.

  41. Reseat a Tap Says:

    Like with most 3D films going back, not all where of quality. If you have a good story or can capture the viewer into being part of the film then great but if you have a shoddy piece of work and are just trying to use 3d gimmicks then it tends to cheapen the technology. Having said that not all 2D entertainment is of much quality either.

  42. Yacko Says:

    It's just a geek trick to make everybody a four-eyes.

  43. dholyer Says:

    I wonder how 3DTV will change the Virtual Reality Game World?

    Will it make the game world more like a Holodeck from Star Trek.

  44. Sam Sung Grrl Says:

    I like 3D for gaming and that's it. However, I think the "flow technology" looks promising (like in the Sony Bravia 9000 series).

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  46. Steve Says:

    I’ve yet to see a flat screen TV that beats a CRT in terms of picture quality, I love my football (soccer) and dark moody films, flat screen can’t deliver at the moment so i give little hope to the fuzzy mess that 3D is!

  47. Bob Says:

    Stereo TV does not require special glasses.
    I watched a 3D HD Golf match not long ago on my regular screen …. left and right images converged perfectly and I could actually tell where the golf ball was in it's trajectory or how the greens were sloped and watch the ball roll up to the cup or go offline because of a mis-read. Love it. I was told by my cable provider what expensive equipment would be necessary, but didn't need any of it.

    When interviewing the guys, you could see how long of a club they were pulling out or even how long the whiskers were on their faces. And yes, I have severe astigmatism and can see the images clearly because they are broadcast in parallel mode, not crosseye mode. Yes, bring on sharp, clear, 3D HG TV that can be seen sharply in "freeview" mode .. no proprietary equipment!

  48. Arnum Says:

    Of course John from Detroit is correct, it's time to create another cash cow.

    I like 3D at the movies, though I hate the glasses. I have checked out 3D TVs in a few shops and again the glasses are the main problem, they are a pain. It is hard on the eyes as well, which makes it obsolete. Watching sport was the hardest thing to do.

    Dunno what is next, but it is unlikely to be 3D TV

  49. Scott Hooson Says:

    Having produced 2 1/2D forensic images for exhibits and seeing how it added to the decisions made by juries, I am well impressed on the potential for entertainment. My exhibits used cheap, polarized glasses and were well received- no headaches or problems because of different viewers. Active glasses are never going to be mainstream- cost and neurological problems abound. LED and laser diods will make the light losses from polarizers easy to overcome. Other posters have made great points about the natural vision for perspectives I need not restate. The conceit of "cinematic" vision which has been inculcated through decades of movie production techniques now makes like asking fish about water. The horsepower dedicated to special effects and scenic extensions has now made the testing of reality vs fake more difficult than ever. 3D will make directors have to think differently- no longer sufficient to view a scene through a lens. I'm excited by the prospect that directors will need to interact with real vistas, as well as stories and imaginary worlds. 3D will usher in new types of documentaries, travelogs and infotainment first- the Hollywood blockbusters will lag and learn from them. Hollywood and the gaming industry that seeks to emulate them will always be behind. Don't judge the viability of the medium by the financible, but by the pioneers that are passionate, motivated and committed. McLuhan is prescient by showing that new media always recycles old content first. Hollywood is a business (when not dabbling in propaganda) and as such plays it safe. New 3D artists that will use it for it's unique characteristics will succeed.

  50. Katy Wheeling Says:

    3D TV? How cool is that. Once upon a time, this type of television is just a dream. Now, it's a reality.