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Are Glasses-Free 3D TVs Doomed?

Report says Toshiba sold fewer than half the glasses-free 3D TVs it targeted in the initial month of sales.


Toshiba, which showed off glasses-free 3D TVs at CES 2011, reportedly sold fewer than half the number of sets it targeted in the initial month of sales.
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As much as consumers complain about having to wear funky glasses to experience 3D TV, two models of glasses-free systems (autostereoscopic or AS) are not selling well in Japan.

That’s what a report from Bloomberg says about Toshiba’s recent entry into the AS TV market. Toshiba introduced two AS models late in 2010, a 20-inch model based on its Cell processor and a 12-inch model that uses some of the Cell features, but not the full monty.

Apparently, Toshiba is disappointed in the sales of those two models. The 20-inch TV, according to Bloomberg, has only sold about 500 units at a price of around $2,940, and less of the 12-inch model. During CES 2011, Toshiba showed off larger AS 3D models, but those aren’t expected to ship until much later in 2011, and no prices have been announced.

A couple of things come to mind with this news. First, isn’t it obvious that a 20-inch TV, about the size of a nice laptop, is just too small? Even in Japan, where smaller homes demand smaller products, a 20-inch 3D TV simply delivers no significant 3D effect to get excited about. I’ve said before that 3D is the feature that makes a 50-inch TV look small. On a small screen 3D looks like a window, not like reality is sitting in your lap - whether that’s actually a good thing is another debate. Consumers go to 3D commercial theaters to get a larger-than-life experience. Why would they settle for a home 3D experience that looks like a ViewMaster?

Next, that 20-inch TV costs nearly $3,000. Panasonic’s top-of-the-line 50-inch plasma can be had for a lot less than that right now. Who’s willing to pay that much for such a small TV just for the benefit of not wearing extra glasses now and then?

And finally, from what I’ve seen so far, AS TVs aren’t ready for the market yet. Granted, all the units I’ve seen have been prototypes, and prototypes typically don’t perform as well as finished production models, but even if they did, there are still problems with the concepts. AS TVs work only if you view them in a restricted position - they have a limited sweet spot. The newer technologies may have multiple sweet spots, as did the prototypes Toshiba showed at CES, but it’s still limited. You can’t just sit yourself on the sofa to watch TV. You have to aim yourself on the sofa.

All of the AS TVs I saw at CES 2011 looked pixelated. Despite the fact they were operating on 4K resolution panels, you could still see a slight grid pattern (each viewer does not receive the full 4K resolution). This might be caused by the polarizing filters on the TV that allow you to see the 3D effect without glasses. Whatever the case, those AS 3D TVs simply didn’t look as good as straight-up HDTVs. And that’s a problem. A step forward in technology shouldn’t result in a step backward in image quality.

We’re facing a similar situation with the rise in passive-glasses polarized 3D TVs (film pattern retarder method). They’re cheaper than the active glasses systems, but they sacrifice the resolution.

AS TVs send the wrong message. With several TV manufacturers showing off glasses-free 3D, and every media outlet talking and writing about how very soon we can all dump the crummy glasses, consumers are getting mixed messages, and I believe they’ll act on those messages by sitting on their hands. Why go out of your way to spend 2K on a 3D TV now when you believe that in another year AS TVs will arrive.

Small screens such as cell phones and hand-held games are another matter, but a TV is an investment you plan to live with for years.

Will large AS TVs take over the market? I don’t think anyone in the industry seriously believes that, as least not in the near future. If Toshiba’s 20-inch TV sells for $3,000, what will a 50- or 60-inch model sell for?

To make any of this work, manufacturers need to stop rushing to show off what they can do, and instead step back to consider what they should do, what their message is and how to pacify, rather than elevate, consumer confusion.



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