3D TV Street Fight

LG and Samsung hit each other with sticks and stones.


The market, and marketing, for 3D TVs is kind of fascinating to me. A month ago I was at an event sponsored by one TV manufacturer that was hell-bent on bashing another manufacture’s technology (they even brought in samples of the competitors TVs and third-party experts to explain the deficiencies). The sponsor wanted to make sure all the editors in the room knew how to look at a 3D TV. The defendant in this “case” has been making glowing claims about how people prefer its technology over the other.

It’s all fair in TV marketing, and from my editor’s perspective, kind of fun to watch. We’ve seen these little battles before. Not too long ago it was HD DVD vs. Blu-ray , and before that DVD-A vs. SACD, and a long list before that. The stakes are big, and the company who’s technology resonates most with consumers gets to smoke better cigars at their board meetings and hopefully serves good sushi at their next press function (note: unagi and toro are my favorites). But it’s the consumer, and the overall market (including the dealers and installers) that suffer in the meantime.

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The battle now in 3D TVs is between active shutter glasses (used by Samsung, Panasonic, Sony and Sharp) and passive polarized glasses (by LG and Toshiba). Vizio, which leads the 3D market, makes 3D TVs in both categories. LG, by the way, also makes 3D TVs that use active-shutter glasses. Those would be the company’s 3D plasma TVs, because currently plasma just won’t work with passive systems.

The autostereoscopic (glasses-free) factor has all but dropped out of the debate because there’s no guarantee that technology will be ready for home use in anything bigger than a tablet anytime soon.

This week LG released the results of a survey that found around 80 percent of respondents preferred passive 3D technology over active. The participants looked at a variety of content on four de-branded TVs in their out-of-the box picture modes. Specifically, 78 percent preferred the LG polarized glasses over competitors active-LCD glasses. The research was conducted by Morpace and commissioned by LG.

Earlier the same month, Consumer Reports gave an LG 3D TV very high marks, surpassing Samsung and Sony.

And then to twist the knife even further, today the company ran a full-page ad in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal basically sticking a tongue out and giving a raspberry to the competition (The ad reads: Hey Sony and Samsung, better stick to 2D).

Twice magazine asked Samsung to respond to the research, so Samsung’s John Revie responded with sales numbers showing that, while participants in a manufacturer-sponsored study may select LG, buyers have been selecting Samung:

“In addition, Samsung cited NPD sell-through numbers showing Samsung with over 60 percent market share year-to-date for total 3DTV sales over the last 12 weeks and with over 50 percent market share year-to-date.”

Vizio, by the way, is beating the pants off both of them.

It’s extremely rare, and pretty bold, to see an electronics manufacture mention a direct competitor in its marketing. This is all-out war, and I don’t like it. First, the typical TV consumer is already confused by the whole concept of 3D TV. I’ve had several dealers tell me that customers have told them they’re not interested in 3D TVs because then they wouldn’t be able to watch regular TV (not true) or that 3D causes brain tumors (I’m not a doctor, but come on).

On the other hand, I guess the companies have learned their tricks from politicians—negative tactics work, especially if it keeps the conversation going.

The truth, however, is complicated. Both technologies are good, can coexist and serve the needs of consumers is different ways.

In my experience reviewing samples of both, active shutter can deliver a more detailed 3D image. No question at all. Passive technology, as it’s available today, reduces the image resolution. This is barely noticeable on quality Blu-ray discs. On broadcast 3D or video-on-demand 3D, the issue becomes much more noticeable. If you’re a video purest and want the most image quality for your home theater fun, then an active shutter-based TV will probably fit you best.

The other issue is the glasses. No wants to have to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of fragile glasses so the family can watch Green Lantern in 3D together. There’s the cost and convenience factors. Even though Samsung continues to offer promotions of glasses bundles, there’s no comparison to the inexpensive glasses of a passive system. Every time you go to a 3D commercial theater you can walk home with more glasses for your TV (somehow my family ended up with four sets of Justin Beiber 3D glasses, though I swear I’m not responsible for that). So if you’re looking for a well-rounded family TV and want to be able to pop in a 3D Blu-ray with minimal hassle, then LG’s solution will work for you. Just remember, there’s more to image quality than how much the glasses cost. Likewise, there’s more to making a happy customer than making sure he or she has 1080p under each eyelid.

This reminds me of the days when 1080p was just coming on and people wanted to know if 720p was still any good. The answer is still yes… it depends.

What baffles me about this whole debate is that most consumers don’t seem to care that much about 3D anyway. Several reports have surfaced about lackluster interest, while smart TV features (TVs with internet connections and a variety of apps) seem to have gotten people’s attention. Go with that guys, because it’s working.

If the issue is about the content, and in many situations it is, then I’m with the public there. I haven’t seen a movie announced this year in 3D that I really care that much about seeing, nor would I go out of my way to see strictly the 3D version. This fall we should probably see a boost in the amount of good 3D Blu-ray content, hopefully putting to rest at least that objection.

There’s another truth that seems to get lost in these arm-wrestling matches: 3DTV is cool. Whatever the format used to deliver it, 3D is fun. Sometimes it’s more fun than other times. Sometimes it’s produced better or rendered better, but that can be said of any content. In the end, people will want this if it continues to deliver worthwhile entertainment.

Eventually, all or most TVs will be 3D-enabled. It will probably be a passive technology (Samsung is indeed working on a passive technology, but it works differently from LG’s). By then, maybe there will be something I want to watch. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy watching this fight.


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