3D HDTV Is Unstoppable

I don’t know exactly how it will happen, or even whether or not I think it’s a good idea, but brace yourself; 3D television is coming to a living room near you. Just as the local cinema created demand for the color television and stereo sound (and later, surround sound) that are now standard features for home entertainment, the rousing success of 3D feature films is going to drive content producers to make a similar experience available for consumers in their own homes.

As with just about any technology advance, hardware is out in front of the software at this initial stage. Remember how we had USB ports on computers for years before we could do anything practical with them (or that the operating systems actually supported them)? The fact is that millions of rear projection HDTVs sold in this country over the past five years or so are entirely capable of displaying 3D images. The lack of a standard way to deliver the content has meant that there has been too little available to get most people interested. But that’s all about to change.

Expect to hear a lot more about 3D HDTV in the coming months. Last month, the UK’s satellite service Sky announced that it will start broadcasting a channel dedicated to 3D content next year. Panasonic made a worldwide splash last week by announcing a marketing tie-in with James Cameron’s AVATAR, the new Twentieth Century Fox feature film scheduled to debut in December in both 3D and 2D versions. Panasonic plans to use this partnership to launch consumer education projects that promote the company’s new 3D-capable products. Panasonic already has plasma HDTVs that can display 3D images, and the company will be announcing 3D-enabled Blu-ray players. According to one source, as many as 100 3D HD Blu-ray titles will be available when the players launch.

This marketing push does put the promotional cart a bit in front of the technology horse, in that standards have not yet been ratified for how 3D content should be delivered on Blu-ray (or other distribution means, for that matter). This may well be one of those cases where the Golden Rule applies; he who has the gold (by being first to market with the strongest product) gets to make the rules. If Panasonic can grab an early lead and make it stick, it could help the company keep its plasma HDTV business going.

But whether or not Panasonic turns out to be the engine that drives 3D into your living room, it will get there one way or another. The 3D movies have been such a success for local cinemas that Hollywood has made major investments in producing future titles in 3D. And they’re going to want to recover as much of that additional investment as they can, and getting a few extra bucks per title as 3D Blu-ray discs is one likely way that they can increase their revenues.

UPDATE 8/26/09: I have been invited to speak to the Philadelphia Area Computer Society (PACS) about 3D HDTV on Saturday, December 19, 2009, from noon to 1 PM. If you’re in the Philadelphia area and would like to attend, more information is available at http://pacsnet.org/meetings.php.