Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting



It’s Not Like HDTV…

Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming -- and the rush is on to create the next major consumer buying opportunity.  For the television market, many predict that the “next big thing” will be 3D.  Major manufacturers are working hard to get products to market. Their marketing departments are working overtime to create enthusiasm among consumers so they simply must rush out and acquire this exciting new technology.  The expectation is that 3D will be the next wave just like it happened with HDTV.

But will it really happen this way?  Let’s first take a look at some events that influenced the introduction of HDTV.  The major challenge in the HDTV transition was for those viewers who received their programs from off-the-air broadcast signals.  These viewers had to purchase a converter box, the cost of which was subsidized by the government.  For most viewers, however, who were already on cable or used satellite dishes, the transition was facilitated by their service providers.  Beyond that, the changeover was hardly noticeable.  Today we have some programs that come to us in HDTV and others that come in a variety of formats.  For those who have large screen televisions, the HDTV images appear sharper and crisper.  But if the program is provided in some lesser format, other than the resolution, nothing else is noticeably different.  In fact, quite often on news programs there will be a mixture of multiple formats as clips of events are interspersed with the commentator’s story line.  Commercials are also often in other formats than the program itself.  Unless we pay special attention, these various formats all look acceptably similar. 

Then why is HDTV perceived as having had such a major impact on television sales?  The answer is that it opened the market for larger screens.  There was a serendipitous convergence of HDTV image quality with flat panel television technology.  Prior to the introduction of large screen plasma and LCD televisions the predominant large screen viewing experience was with rear projection systems.  The conventional NTSC broadcasts did not look very good on these early larger screens with their dim images and the interlaced scan lines being obnoxiously visible.  Once HDTV images could be shown and once consumers saw the futuristic-looking and dazzlingly spectacular new flat panel televisions, sales began to grow even faster than had been predicted.  This growth was further facilitated by manufacturing improvements that led to major price decreases.

Now can we do it all over again with 3D?  Is this the year when consumers begin to rush out and buy their next generation flat panel TV with 3D capability?  Or could there be something that is fundamentally different?  Perhaps 3D is not at all like the transition to HDTV?  First, we must appreciate that there is no government mandate to make a transition to 3D as there was with HDTV.  Second, the viewing experience is not seamless.  For the vast majority of 3D televisions currently entering the market there is the need for special viewing glasses.  These glasses are unique to each manufacturer and quite expensive.  The expectation for good quality 3D that does not need viewing glasses is still some years away – and perhaps many years away.  And if a program is being broadcast in 3D, it cannot be viewed unless the special glasses are worn.  Thus, there is no way to seamlessly intermix 3D and non-3D viewing as there is with HDTV. 

However, the most interesting obstacle to 3D is that no matter how perfectly developed this stereoscopic technology becomes, it will never present us with truly realistic images.  The fundamental problem is that with current 3D stereo images the additional depth cues that we get from head movement and focus convergence are missing and therefore our brains perceive this viewing experience as an incomplete imitation of a real environment. 

Will viewers be willing to accept this imitation 3D for everyday viewing?  My opinion is that people will tire of this novelty just as they did some years ago when 3D was similarly touted as the next wave for movie theaters.  Yes, the technology is much better now and the presentations more realistic.  Nevertheless, bringing 3D to market will not follow the same path as the introduction of HDTV – a path that provided an improved viewing experience compatible with what existed before.  For consumers, HDTV turned out to be just like analog TV – only better.  

Stereoscopic 3D, on the other hand, requires cumbersome glasses and, even when done perfectly, will not provide the fully immersive experience that consumers may be expecting.  Will they buy anyway, perhaps for sports and video games?  Will this market be as large as manufacturers expect?  Perhaps Santa working in his TV factory at the North Pole has the answers.  This Christmas Season may begin to give us some clues as to this important future.  

Are you going to be asking Santa for a 3D TV this Christmas?  Let me know your thoughts on this topic or others.  You may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.   With my sincere wishes for Peace and Prosperity in the coming year – Merry Christmas.