Lauren Goode

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At CES 2012, 3-D Is Riding Shotgun to “Smart” TVs

After years of flogging 3-D TVs at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, television makers are trying a different tactic.

For 2012, they are focusing on making TVs “smarter” by enabling them to connect to the Internet for apps and video services on the Web.

But that doesn’t mean 3-D is going away. It’s just riding shotgun with smart TVs.

Smart TV is not a new concept, of course. Up until now, it has been defined as Internet-connected television achieved through a separate box or device that connects to the TV and streams Internet content, or via a computer-like processor built directly into the TV.

On the showroom floor in Las Vegas next week, electronics makers including Samsung Electronics, Sony and LG Electronics are expected to show off more television sets that bring Internet connectivity to entertainment centers for the home. Yesterday, Google announced that LG will join the list of companies supporting Google TV; Samsung, Sony, and Vizio Inc. have also adopted Google’s Internet TV technology.

With Apple rumored to have a possible Internet-connected HDTV in the pipeline, TV makers are making all kinds of pushes to bring to market devices that offer consumers a full range of options. For many consumers, the answer for now will still be external devices that offer easy, upgradable solutions, like the Microsoft Xbox, Apple TV, Google TV and even Roku’s latest gadget.

Analysts believe that Internet-enabled TVs will begin to take a larger share of the market by default, eventually becoming a check-off item for consumers, rather than a special feature. Some 60 percent of new televisions being sold in 2012 are expected to have Internet connectivity. According to NPD’s DisplaySearch, connected-TV shipments are expected to reach 138 million globally by 2015, accounting for 47 percent of all flat-panel TVs.

So where does 3-D fit into all this?

TV makers will still be touting 3-D at CES 2012, as many smart TVs will also include 3-D capabilities. Samsung Electronics, for instance, says that more than half of its 2012 TV models will support 3-D. “Our commitment to 3-D is only deepening,” says Ethan Raisel, director of communications at Samsung.

Tim Alessi, Director of New Product Development at LG, estimates that around 20 percent of all LG TV units will support 3-D, and notes that 3-D is featured in 50 percent of the company’s lineup for this year.

But despite the fact that 3-D TV sales in 2011 showed some encouraging gains — with an estimated 21.5 million 3-D units reported to have shipped last year and sales showing significant gains from quarter to quarter — the forced exuberance over three-dimensional screens has been tempered a bit.

That’s likely because it doesn’t matter how well 3-D TV units are selling — for the consumer, anyway. “It’s not really the penetration that matters, it’s the use,” says Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey. “You’d be hard pressed to find a 3-D TV owner that actually uses it in 3-D mode even once a week. That’s not a formula for building consumer momentum.”

For TV, 3-D presents a three-headed monster: To start, there are the technical and psychological obstacles of those pesky 3-D glasses — and while autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3-D technology is being worked on in many R&D labs, industry experts all agree that quality 3-D without glasses is at least a few years away.

Secondly, 3-D presents a chicken-and-egg dilemma that doesn’t exist with smart-TV features — the question of where the viewable content will come from. Many content creators have been holding off on making 3-D programs. The Discovery Channel and ESPN made headlines two years ago when they announced 3-D channels; but in terms of sports, 3-D has been relegated to key events, due to high production costs.

An increasing number of 3-D movies are available on DVD, but moviemakers that hopped aboard the 3-D train early — think Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation — were likely doing so to plant a flag in the ground for when 3-D finally does hit critical mass in the living room, says Scott Steinberg, head of strategic consulting firm TechSavvy.

Sony Chairman and CEO Howard Stringer even said recently, regarding the company’s 3-D TV push, that he hadn’t realized all of the challenges in getting 3-D content in place.

And the third issue affecting the uptake of 3-D has been the cost of the sets. On average, the cost of 47-inch to 50-inch 3-D TV sets is $400 more than similar HDTVs, according to a 2011 report from Retrevo. And while the entire consumer electronics industry has been hurt by a weak U.S. economy, TV sales have been hit particularly hard.

Steinberg says that for the average American household, television purchasing is about being practical right now. “It’s much more important to have the maximum-value TV with Internet capabilities and apps, than to invest in a still-unproven technology like 3-D.”

A December 2011 report from Parks & Associates on consumer purchasing intent also indicates that smart TVs are what’s grabbing the interest of consumers right now.

Even that report points out that smart TVs won’t deliver the killer blow to 3-D. As smart TVs are punched up with even more features — from apps to motion remotes to voice-command capabilities — more middle-class households looking to purchase smart TVs may buy in to 3-D, whether they’re actively looking for it or not.

Whether consumers actually want to sit in their living rooms and wear 3-D glasses to watch TV remains to be seen. For now, TV makers will still insist that they do.

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