In the early 2010s, 3D TVs were touted as the next big thing in home entertainment. Major manufacturers like Sony, LG, Samsung heavily promoted 3D video as a revolutionary way to watch movies, sports and TV shows in a more immersive format. But after just a few years, the initial excitement around 3D TVs fizzled out. Sales declined sharply and most companies exited the 3D TV market entirely by 2016. What led to 3D being a short-lived fad instead of a mainstream success? Let‘s take a detailed look at the brief history and rapid decline of 3D television.
The Checkered History of 3D Displays
Attempts to develop 3D television and video can be traced back to the early 1900s. Some key events in the long road to consumer 3D TV include:
- 1915 – The first public 3D movie screened using anaglyph color filters.
- 1922 – The first feature length 3D movie "The Power of Love" released.
- 1960s – 3D cinema surges in popularity briefly, then fades out.
- 1980s – A few TV manufacturers experiment with 3D using active shutter glasses.
- 1990s – IMAX 3D theaters take off, showing limited 3D documentaries.
- 2000s – 3D digital cinema projectors enable a new wave of 3D movie releases.
- 2010 – The first modern 3D TVs hit the consumer market, led by Panasonic, Sony and Samsung.
This timeline shows that 3D video technology has gone through alternating cycles of hype and stagnation over the past century. The pattern of quick boom and bust repeated again with the latest generation of 3D TVs in the early 2010s.
The First 3D TV Boom
In 2010, Panasonic and Sony introduced their first consumer 3D TVs using active shutter glasses. This kicked off a 3D craze, with companies like LG, Vizio and Toshiba quickly joining the market.
According to statistics from the NPD Group, North American TV shipments nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010, driven by the release of 3D models. 3D TV shipments soared over the next two years:
|2.26 million units
|24.14 million units
|41.45 million units
The Consumer Electronics Association also reported that 3D TVs grew from just 2% of total TV sales in 2010 to over 25% in 2011.
This initial wave of demand was fueled by blockbuster 3D movies like Avatar and advances in digital cinema projection. But even at their peak, 3D TVs still had limited household penetration.
The Collapse of the 3D TV Market
The demand for 3D TVs fell off a cliff between 2012 and 2016. NPD Group data showed that over this period, the share of TV units with 3D capability dropped from 20% down to just 7% in the US.
By 2015, most major manufacturers like LG and Sony had stopped producing new 3D models. Remaining budget models were phased out entirely by 2017. A technology that once seemed to hold so much promise had flamed out in rapid and spectacular fashion.
So what factors caused the 3D TV market to collapse so quickly?
Key Reasons 3D TVs Failed to Take Off
There are several critical factors that combined to limit mainstream adoption of 3D televisions.
1. The Hassle of 3D Glasses
Most 3D TVs utilized active shutter glasses, which contain LCD lenses that block light from reaching each eye in an alternating pattern to produce a stereoscopic 3D effect. But wearing dark, bulky, battery-powered glasses in your living room was an inconvenience, especially for larger families.
Active 3D glasses were also quite expensive, commonly costing $50 or more per pair. For a family of 4 or 5, the cost of multiple pairs of glasses added significantly to the expense of a 3D TV.
2. Scarcity of 3D Content
The amount of video content available in 3D was extremely limited compared to conventional 2D programming.
Following a short-lived surge of 3D movie releases, IMAX shifted focus away from 3D documentaries. ESPN‘s dedicated 3D sports channel shut down in 2013 from lack of viewership. 3D video games also failed to take off.
There simply wasn‘t enough 3D programming to justify the premium price of 3D TVs for most regular households.
3. Viewing Fatigue and Health Issues
Watching 3D can cause significant eye strain, headaches, and even nausea or dizziness for some viewers. This is due to the unnatural visual effect of focusing your eyes on a flat panel while processing simulated depth.
In a poll by the American Optometric Association, 25% of parents said their kids experienced discomfort watching 3D. And 10% of adults said they suffered headaches during 3D movies.
For a sizable portion of the population, 3D video simply wasn‘t an enjoyable or comfortable viewing experience.
4. Perception That 3D Was Unnecessary
Many consumers saw 3D as a frill rather than must-have functionality. The added illusion of depth wasn‘t enough to justify paying a premium. Most viewers were satisfied with the regular 2D high definition viewing experience.
Of course, there were also technological enthusiasts and home theater buffs who loved 3D. But it remained a niche appeal rather than sparking wide demand.
5. Higher Prices
During the early boom period, 3D TVs cost about $300 to $800 more than comparable 2D sets. For example, in 2011 a top-end Panasonic 55" 3D plasma TV retailed for $3,500 while the 2D version was $3,300.
For many cost-conscious buyers, paying extra for 3D capability that would rarely get used didn‘t make sense.
6. Competition From 4K and Smart TVs
The introduction of 4K ultra high definition TVs in 2013 gave consumers a compelling new reason to upgrade – more than 8 million pixels of resolution.
Streaming services like Netflix also began investing heavily in 4K content. And Smart TVs with built-in apps presented an entirely new way of watching video.
3D technology simply couldn‘t compete with features that delivered a clearer picture and more functionality. Consumer interest shifted quickly away from 3D.
Is There Hope for a 3D Comeback?
Given the long history of 3D video, it‘s likely the technology could resurface again in the future when the time is right. Here are some developments that point to potential renewed interest in 3D:
1. Advancements in Glasses-Free 3D
A major turnoff for 3D TVs was the need to wear cumbersome glasses. But auto-stereoscopic displays that show 3D without glasses have made major advancements.
Companies like LG, Sony, and TCL have all demoed prototypes at tech shows. Many use eye-tracking to beam separate images directly to each eye.
The technology still faces challenges like high costs and limited viewing angles. But glasses-free 3D could eventually help 3D TVs gain broader appeal.
2. Light Field and Holographic Displays
An emerging display technology called light field recreates much more realistic depth and perspective. It simulates the way light actually scatters in real life.
Small, niche light field displays already exist, like the Looking Glass Factory. As the technology improves and costs come down, light field 3D video may finally fulfill the dream of truly immersive 3D television and movies.
Another futuristic concept is holographic TVs that create 3D images floating in air. Companies like VividQ are working on holographic technology. But major obstacles remain around resolution, image size, and cost.
3. Virtual and Augmented Reality
Major tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft see virtual reality as the next computing platform. VR headsets are also spurring new interest in creating premium 3D cinematic content.
As AR/VR experiences go mainstream in the 2020s, we could see renewed appetite for advanced 3D video. This emerging market may help recapture some of 3D‘s lost momentum.
The story of 3D television followed a typical hype cycle – rapid initial growth fueled by hype and excitement, followed by stagnation and decline as consumer interest faded.
3D TV failed to transition from a novelty to an essential, must-have technology due to a variety of practical limitations. But with the advancement of new display technologies like glasses-free 3D, light field, and holographics, more immersive 3D video could eventually find a sustainable market.
The next generation of 3D displays may learn important lessons from the failure of past 3D TVs. By solving core issues like need for glasses, lack of content, high costs, and visual discomfort, future 3D devices could deliver on the original promise of bringing cinematic 3D into the living room.