Is 3-D at the Tipping Point?

From the increasing flurry of market activity, it would seem that 3D video is building momentum, but is it a good bet, on its way to commercial success, or are we just seeing a lot of empty hype, with the format destined to fizzle as yet another fad?

To help predict the trend, consider some recent industry activity:
- The year is seeing increasing delivery of blockbuster films in 3D, as well as a growing number of 3D independent productions. Theater installations are on the rise. RealD announced last month that it has doubled its installation base of 3D equipped cinema screens worldwide and has achieved 400% growth in Europe so far in 2009. Warner Mycal has doubled its number of 3-D screens in Japan over the past three months.

- More displays are becoming available, especially for production use. Victor Co. of Japan (JVC) recently developed a business-use 46-inch 3D LCD display. Hyundai has introduced four widescreen 3D IT displays designed for professional users, ranging from 22 to 46 inches.

- 3D consumer products are emerging. The advanced TV products showed by Sony, Panasonic and others at CES earlier this year are being joined by other players. Acer recently announced plans to deliver a 3D laptop this fall, and Optoma has announced a 3D home theater projector, to be available by year’s end.

- 3D content production is becoming more widely available. Sony and Panasonic are separately starting to produce 3D content, for theaters and Blu-ray, respectively. New applications are emerging. UK Mobile operator O2 has just released what they say is the first in-theater interactive 3D game, controlled by audience arm movements.

- Despite the performance of state-of-the-art 3D systems, however, the anaglyph process still hasn’t disappeared. Disney is releasing anaglyph 3D video games for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii, based on well-known theatrical releases such as Toy Story, Avatar, and G-Force. Dreamworks, on the other hand, has decided not to release 3D DVD and Blu-ray versions of Monsters vs. Aliens, saying that the original RealD production did not translate well to the anaglyph process. They did say, however, that they are awaiting TVs that can deliver a "theater-like" 3D experience.

Is this the usual combination of trial and error, or is a viable and long-lasting format emerging? In order to market any new product successfully, several key factors are necessary: usability, affordability, entertainment value, and product value over competing options. While many of these elements would appear to be present, there are some issues: will anaglyph releases for PCs and games help or hurt the market? Will consumers prefer to spend their (limited) dollars on an inferior format, given the cost of an alternative better display? Will consumer electronics lag behind theatrical venues?

In his 2000 book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes three factors that lead to an inflection point in a social phenomenon: The Law of the Few, where success is heavily dependent on the involvement of key socially-gifted people; Stickiness, where the content of a message is critical; and Context, where the trend is sensitive to current conditions and circumstances.

I’d say that the jury is still out. While we might be on the verge of a viable entertainment and information display format, the report card is mixed. Theatrical releases have provided the best visibility of what the format can offer. Certainly, the talents of many in the content production industry provide a base for "gifted" artistic expression, and the content is all-important, as has been said many times before.

The wildcard, however, is the current business climate: while industry appears to be taking the right steps, and investing in the medium, the ultimate decider is the consumer. Recent signs suggest that discretionary spending may be loosening up, so film studios and distributors beware: you are at the forefront of the medium — charge a premium for 3D releases at everyone’s peril!

By Aldo Cugnini, DisplayDaily