For a few years at the beginning of the 2010s, it appeared that 3D TVs would be the next big thing in consumer electronics. Every major TV manufacturer embraced the concept, and 3D content ranging from movies to live sporting events was released on TV channels and DVDs. However, by the second half of the decade, 3D TV had seemingly vanished, replaced by panels boasting 4K resolution and HDR. So, what exactly happened? The failure of 3D TV was ultimately due to a combination of bad timing, practical limitations, and high costs.
The 3D TV was far from the only technology from the era to fail as quickly as it was introduced; the Wii U was an even more infamous flop, with confusing marketing and a lack of games making it Nintendo’s worst-selling console to date (aside from the Virtual Boy). The rate at which both the Wii U and 3D TV were discontinued served as a stark reminder to manufacturers that consumers would not necessarily buy every new innovation the industry threw at them, no matter how hyped it was at the time of its initial release. By 2016, most major manufacturers had stopped producing 3D TVs, and there were none on the market a year later (via Museum of Failure).
Avatar Kickstarts the Trend
The concept of a three-dimensional television is not novel. In 1928, John Logie Baird, one of television’s early pioneers, demonstrated an early form of 3D television known as stereoscopic (via The Conversation). He tried for years to persuade broadcast executives and government committees to support the idea, but he ultimately failed. Instead, TV executives wanted to focus on improving picture quality to give viewers crisper images, pushing Logie Baird’s proposal to the sidelines. It took until the next century for 3D to score its first major hit, with the runaway success of 2009’s “Avatar” at the box office igniting a wave of interest in the technology.
The film “Avatar” became the highest-grossing film of all time, and as a result of its success, TV manufacturers quickly launched 3D-capable TVs to provide consumers with the same experience at home. LG and Panasonic were the first to introduce 3D televisions, but every major manufacturer soon followed (via Lifewire). The first 3D channels followed closely behind, with ESPN and Sky among the first to cater to this newly emerging market. Home Blu-ray discs were also released, allowing viewers to watch their favorite movies in 3D theater-style at home.
A Temporary Sales Success
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for the 3D TV at first. Globally, 24 million 3D-capable TVs were sold in 2011, and by 2012, that figure had risen to more than 41 million (via The Conversation). 3D features were frequently bundled with high-end smart TVs, which were another hot feature at the time. This was great news for manufacturers because it meant that more consumers would be forced to buy high-end TVs in order to access all of the latest technology, increasing profit margins.
Everything was going swimmingly… until it wasn’t. Part of the problem with creating smart TVs with 3D capabilities was that manufacturers didn’t know whether viewers were buying their products for the smart features, the 3D features, or a combination of the two. It would turn out that they preferred the former over the latter, and the available 3D content did not gain the traction that many broadcasters and studios expected.
One of the most significant barriers to 3D TV adoption was the time it was introduced to the market. In 2009, the United States switched from analog to digital television, requiring viewers to either purchase a new digital television or purchase an analog-to-digital converter in order for their older televisions to receive the new format (via Lifewire). After spending money on a new TV or converter, most consumers were hesitant to open their wallets again when 3D became available a year later.
Although initial hype boosted sales of 3D TVs, things quickly settled down. The effects of the 2008 recession, which had forced many households to tighten their purse strings and cut back on unnecessary purchases, were still being felt by Americans and consumers in many other countries around the world. While switching to DTV was necessary for anyone who simply wanted to continue watching TV, 3D was not, especially since the vast majority of content was still available in native 2D only.
Lack of 3D Content
That brings us to the next major issue with 3D televisions: there was simply not enough content to watch on them. Although a number of cable and satellite channels were launched shortly after the first 3D TVs hit the market, most were discontinued within a year or two. ESPN discontinued its 3D service in 2013, and Sky and other competitors followed suit around the same time. Despite the fact that the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics organizers committed to filming every event in native 3D, viewing that content was not possible in most markets because broadcasters refused to show it due to a lack of interest (via The Conversation).
A vicious cycle ensued as TV channels were canceled and sports games were not shown in 3D even though it was available to broadcasters. Because there wasn’t enough to keep viewers interested, fewer viewers were willing to engage with any remaining 3D content, and as a result, broadcasters and studios became less willing to produce 3D content. By 2016, the only new 3D content available was movies, with only one or two streaming services offering a limited number of 3D shows on catchup.
Active vs. Passive Glasses
Aside from content and timing, perhaps the most significant issue with 3D TV was that it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. To get the 3D effect, viewers had to wear glasses, which came in two varieties. Active glasses were primarily used by Samsung and Sony, and they featured shutters that opened and closed rapidly, alternating images between the left and right eyes around 120 times per second (via TechRadar). They produced a sharper 3D image than competitors, but they were battery-powered, making them heavy and frequently uncomfortable to wear. To make matters worse, one brand’s active glasses were often incompatible with rival TVs, so someone wearing Samsung glasses couldn’t watch 3D content on a Sony TV.
Viewers could also use passive 3D glasses, which used simple polarized lens filters similar to those used in cinemas. They were the preferred device for manufacturers such as LG and Vizio because they were lighter, less expensive, and compatible with various TV brands. The main issue was that they reduced image definition by half, resulting in a much fuzzier image that worsened as screen sizes increased. They also did not alleviate eye strain, which was a common complaint among viewers wearing both active and passive glasses.
While passive glasses can be purchased for a few dollars, active 3D glasses can cost well over $100 per pair and are easily broken (via Lifewire). This was an extra expense that could add up to nearly the price of a new TV for an average family of four who wanted to watch movies with a few friends. Early active glasses also had a short battery life, with some only lasting a few hours, barely enough to watch a movie.
Not only that, but viewers who wanted the best experience would need to make sure their Blu-ray player, satellite or cable receiver, and any peripheral equipment was 3D compatible. Unlike many TV innovations (such as HDR and smart TVs), which integrate seamlessly into a user’s existing setup, maximizing a panel’s 3D capabilities required significant effort and, most importantly, a significant investment.
Image Quality Issues
Along with the inconvenience of constantly wearing TV glasses, viewers were also confronted with significantly lower image quality on 3D TVs than on 2D counterparts. Viewing angle became an important factor, with the best 3D images only available when a viewer sat directly in front of the screen. Moving a few feet to the left or right often ruined the effect. Room lighting could also be an issue, as 3D images were darker than their 2D counterparts, but TV manufacturers did not increase the light output of their products in response. As a result, even when 3D TVs could display 2D content at a satisfactory brightness, they often appeared dim.
Even ignoring all of these issues, it’s impossible to deny that some viewers simply did not enjoy watching 3D. Eye strain and nausea were so common that children and pre-teens were advised not to watch 3D TV at all, making watching movies as a family an impractical activity (via TechRadar). Not to mention that anyone with only one eye or a lazy eye was unable to see the 3D effect, instead viewing an out-of-focus screen.
Inadequate Retail Experiences
The final nail in the coffin for 3D TVs was that when it came to purchasing one, retailers were frequently woefully underprepared to persuade customers to open their wallets. According to Lifewire, after the initial hype and demonstrations, retailers would frequently leave display TVs without batteries in the glasses, or the glasses would be missing entirely. Salespeople were not properly informed about the benefits of a 3D TV, and some potential customers left the store not knowing how the TV worked.
A common misconception was that 3D TVs couldn’t display 2D content, and sales staff didn’t do enough to dispel this myth, further putting off customers who were already hesitant. Customers needed convincing of the appeal of 3D technology, especially since it was so hands-on, through real-world demonstrations, but all too often, those demonstrations were simply not available in stores. In the end, prospective buyers simply chose a television that they could better understand the benefits of. As interest in 3D TV channels waned, retailers found it less profitable to properly train staff to demonstrate the format’s capabilities, triggering a vicious cycle that led to consumer disinterest.
The Death of 3D
With sales plummeting, 3D TV channels being axed, and an unenthusiastic public response, TV manufacturers quickly lost interest in 3D as a format. It wasn’t worth continuing to develop a feature that almost no one was using, so 3D TVs were quietly removed from shelves as soon as they were released. By 2017, all of the major manufacturers had abandoned 3D functionality, with LG’s director of product development declaring that “it’s just not a key buying factor when selecting a new TV” and that “anecdotal information indicated [to us] that actual usage was not high” (via CNET). Instead, the company chose to market 4K and HDR, which had a much broader appeal.
With all of the major players abandoning 3D and the supply of new 3D content drying up, it appears that the format is doomed. There are still a few 3D films released, but they are mostly 2D films that are converted to 3D after the fact. According to Lifewire, the majority of those releases are on Blu-ray and include a 2D version of the film as standard. That’s about it for new 3D content, and watching any 3D film requires a compatible TV manufactured before 2017. Most viewers will have upgraded their televisions since then, removing the ability to watch this now-outdated format.
Is a Revival in the Cards?
While it is unlikely to return in the near future, 3D technology may find its way back into televisions in the future. LG unveiled a 4K screen with passive 3D capabilities just before discontinuing them entirely, producing a much sharper image than the previous generation of 1080p screens ever could (via TechRadar). The technology could be easily re-integrated into today’s 4K TVs at any time, without the need for expensive active glasses.
“Avatar” was the original catalyst for the 3D craze, and creator James Cameron insisted that 3D wasn’t dead, just “accepted” (via Variety). The sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” will be released in theaters on December 16, 2022, in both 3D and 2D. It remains to be seen whether this reinvigorates demand for home 3D viewing, which appears unlikely given that most of the medium’s pitfalls have yet to be convincingly solved. For the time being, 3D TV remains an innovative but flawed concept that has failed to deliver on its promises to revolutionize the television industry.