Full HD 3D displays and 3D capable Blu-ray disc players started hitting store shelves back in March. Displays are currently available from Samsung and Panasonic, with models from Sony, LG and others coming later this year. 3D is by far the biggest buzz-word in the industry right now and consumer electronics manufacturers are hoping to ride it to increased sales as economic recovery slowly comes our way. Unfortunately, there’s one major part of this equation missing: CONTENT!
Going on two months into the 3D revolution there is exactly one theatrical release available on digital native 3D Blu-ray disc. And that release, Monsters vs. Aliens, isn’t even available in wide release. The only way to get it is in Samsung’s 3D Starter Kit. Sadly, there have been more announcements of popular 3D theatrical releases that will not receive 3D Blu-ray releases than those that will. No Avatar. No Alice in Wonderland. My fingers are crossed for no Clash of the Titans.
So, how can manufacturers, retailers and installers expect to sell 3D displays and players when there so little actual content available? On the flip side, why would studios go to the effort of producing digital 3D content when there’s no installed equipment base? It’s hard to sell 3D discs when no one has the equipment to use it.
The reasons for buying a 3D display are a bit easier to rationalize. If you’re buying a display anyway, why not be ready for what’s next? Comparing similar displays with and without 3D capabilities (like the 2D Samsung UN46C6500 and 3D Samsung UN46C7000), you’re looking at paying around a 20% premium for the 3D capabilities. Beyond viewing native 3D Blu-ray content, you’re also able to convert 2D-to-3D on the fly which can provide a surprisingly impressive effect. If you’re buying just for future-proofing yourself, you don’t even have to buy a 3D Blu-ray player and/or glasses until you feel there’s enough content to justify.
These types of arguments won’t, however, push early-adopters to upgrade. To get people to upgrade specifically for 3D, not just pay a premium when buying a display anyway, you’re going to need content. Without it, there’s no way to justify the upgrade. This is the market that is going mainly untapped. To push people to upgrade, the content is the reason and right now it’s just not there.
So why is the content missing? It’s not because 3D content doesn’t exist. The rising popularity of 3D theatrical releases should be all the proof you need of that. The sad truth is the James Camerons of the world don’t want a 3D Blu-ray release to languish on shelves because no one has the equipment to view it. 3D Blu-Ray content is backwards-compatible with 2D Blu-ray players, but the studios will surely want to charge a premium for 3D content. Content providers aren’t going to release discs no one will buy because they haven’t upgraded to a 3D display, player and glasses.
Egg, meet chicken. Chicken, meet egg.
So how can the 3D industry as a whole break out of this impasse? There looks to be two courses of action currently being taken by the equipment manufacturers and studios. The first is the exclusive pack-in. Samsung has Monsters vs. Aliens and, in the second half of the year, should be offering the first three Shrek movies as exclusive pack-ins with their 3D gear. In the U.S., Panasonic is including a generic nature and travel demo disc with their 3D display packages, but European buyers will be treated to Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Coraline.
Pack-ins will become more varied and prevalent as more manufacturers bring new models to market. While not content you can walk in Best Buy and pick off the shelf, it’s a start and gives potential buyers something to view out of the box as soon as they get their shiny new thing home.
The second strategy seems to be a ramp-up in the quality of available content. While not Avatar or Star Wars, there have been Q3 and Q4 announcements for several 3D Blu-ray titles including Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, A Christmas Carol, Kenny Chesney: Summer in 3D, and two Magic series travel logs. These aren’t the kinds of titles that will make a format successful or directly sell displays.
What these kinds of titles do offer, however, is shelf space and customer awareness of 3D. As awareness and interest grow, so will display sales. As display sales grow, so will content catalogs. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s one we might just have to churn through for the next year before we start seeing high-profile theatrical releases getting the 3D Blu-ray treatment.
As much as I love 3D for the fun and immersion it brings to movie viewing, I can’t jump up on a soap box and tell you that you’ll see your favorite film on 3D Blu-ray any time soon. It’s going to be a slow ramp up, just like Blu-ray, HDTV and even DVD. You’ll need to make your judgment on when it’s the right time to jump in the content/equipment meat grinder, but sooner or later we’ll get a really tasty 3D meatball.
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Stephen Hopkins is chief technology editor for EH Publishing. He writes product reviews, features, and focuses heavily on 3D TV, iPhone and iPad apps, and digital content.