Panasonic's Touch the Future Tour swung through Boston this weekend. Designed as something between a store and a gallery opening, the "tour" showed off the Japanese gadget giant's new line of HD cameras and TVs.
The display, which was in a mall and open to the public, demonstrated some impressive gear – a camcorder that identifies specific faces, HD video from a D-SLR camera, Skype video chat built into a TV – but Panasonic turned the spotlight on its 3D TV.
The company launched this plasma model two weeks ago. Excellent timing. Just a few days earlier, "Alice in Wonderland" became the latest 3D movie to top the box office. "Avatar," the most successful movie ever, still pulls in millions of dollars a week. And 17 new 3D movies are scheduled to arrive this year.
Hollywood's extra dimension has no doubt conquered movies theaters. But will its next stop be our living rooms?
Panasonic's smiling tour guides had several reasons why Americans should buy a 3D TV. Not all of them hold up.
Reason one: 3D is simply better than HD
"Imagine a sense of depth so realistic," says Panasonic's brochure, "your whole body feels like it's being pulled into the scene." Let's forgive the hyperbole and cut straight to the message: 3D just looks better.
The novelty is alluring. Watching footage of players spike a volleyball from the foreground to the seemingly distant background looks great. But before the several-minute clip had a chance to loop, the 3D experience grew a little stale. Most people during the demo seemed content after about 90 seconds and took off their 3D glasses to wander the rest of the stands.
Chatting with some of them afterward, many said they liked the 3D look but that feeling only carried them so far. For most of them, enjoying the third dimension was akin to playing a Blu-ray movie instead of an ordinary DVD, or to watching a TV with a slightly bolder color pallet than most. Sure, it's better. But the old way works just fine.
This first reason for buying a 3D TV presumably targets early adopters and shoppers with deep pockets. After all, paying the premium on a $14 3D movie ticket is one thing. Picking up $2,500 50-inch 3D TV is quite another.
Reason two: Don't miss out on the great 3D content
Another pitch at the Panasonic event referred to a coming flood of movies, games, and sporting events designed for 3D TVs. Indeed, such options are coming. However, the forecast seems premature.
"Neither [the first] round, nor the November version, will be 3D. That'll likely come in a third dip a year or two from now. You see, in order to sell more than a few dozen copies in 3D, Fox needs the market for 3D on Blu-ray (meaning capable players and displays) to... well, frankly EXIST... first."
In fact, "Avatar" director James Cameron said earlier this month that he foresees a problem for 3D TV sales. The technology is ready now. The content is still a ways off. As fellow Horizons blogger Matthew Shaer wrote, Cameron "argued that the gap wouldn't be filled by movies, because films take too long to produce in 3D. Instead, Cameron said, viewers should expect to see a range of live 3D television – baseball games, for instance, are a natural fit. And live 3D TV isn't expensive to make."
On June 11, ESPN rolls out its 3D TV network. It will air 85 events by the end of the year. That works out to be about three "events" per week, though most will be clumped together in tournaments, such as the network's inaugural broadcast of World Cup matches. ESPN hinted that the rest of its 3D airtime would include reruns of past events. The appeal of such a channel depends on how much you care about the sports ESPN decides to film in 3D.
Gaming presents another 3D option on the horizon.
A display at the Panasonic event showed off "Need for Speed: Shift" running in 3D on a computer. More than a dozen other PC games support the feature, according to the representative. However, consoles, which have become America's preferred platform for hardcore games, have fallen behind the trend. The chips inside the PS3 and Xbox 360 are several generations out of date, he says. Sony disagrees and says 3D PS3 are around the corner. (The Nintendo DS will get a glasses-free 3D update, but that doesn't help Panasonic's case.)
Bridging these gaps will likely become a chicken-and-egg problem. If 3D TVs take off, studios will throw money at producing content more quickly. But will people buy 3D if there are few things to watch on them?
This closely reflects the early woes on Blu-ray, which took more than a year after defeating HD-DVD before sales figures could start climbing.
Reason three: Wait and get 3D anyway
Patient shoppers will probably not need to decide whether a 3D TV is worth the extra money.
"In a few years, I think 3D will come on most TVs" just as HD is now the baseline for television sets, says Gene Kelsey, the company's US director of sale support. "It will be yet another feature – something that people come to expect."
To be clear, Mr. Kelsey never said people should "wait" to buy a 3D set. He argues that 3D TVs provide the best 2D picture. Smart shoppers – especially those that skipped the HD generation – should strongly consider future-proofing their living room by getting a 3D set now, Kelsey says.
But his forecast seems correct. Pretty much every TV available at big-box stores now comes with an HD sticker in the corner. HD is no longer a selling point. It's just a fact.
First came color televisions. Then HD took over. Soon, Kelsey predicts, 3D will join the list of standard features for TVs. Turn on 3D when you want to, turn it back to 2D when you're done. At that point, shoppers can forget about the premium TV pricing and just buy the content they want – whether it includes signing up for ESPN 3D, getting the eventual "Avatar" 3D Blu-ray, or driving a digital car through a video game track.
What do you think? Should TV shoppers consider 3D TVs now? How much would you pay for the extra dimension? Let us know in the comments section below.