The Rise (again) and Fall (again) of 3D

3D is dead.

At least that seems to be the sentiment from objective industry watchers. But those with a stake in 3D’s success continue to maintain the illusion that 3D TV is a thing.

According to CEA, after a heady 2011 in which sales of 3D TVs rose 123 percent over 2010, according to CEA, sales of 3D TVs is expected to rise only 13 percent in the U.S. this year, 14 percent next year.

But even these modest sales increases are misleading. Similar to the sales figures for connected TVs, these and other mildly optimistic 3D TV sales projections, again, illustrate less a case of 3D interest than in 3D simply being a ubiquitous feature in all higher-end models from the major TV manufacturers. All these “3D TV” sales forecasts reflect is the sales of feature-filled premium sets altogether.

What’s behind this 3D apathy?

3D movie theater growth slowing

3D’s waning popularity isn’t simply in the home. Worldwide, the number of the 3D-equipped movie theaters has grown nearly 10 fold since 2008 according to the MPAA. But after several years of triple digit growth, the number of 3D theaters increased by just 27 percent in 2012 to reach around 45,000 total, 35 percent of all theaters.

Perhaps this slowing growth reflects saturation, but in the U.S. the number of 3D screens expanded by less than 9 percent and represent just 41 percent of all digital theaters. (Less than 20 percent of all screens are still analog.)

Perhaps the reason for the 3D theater slowdown is the drop in 3D attendance. According to MPAA, 3D movie attendance in 2012 dropped in the largest 12-39-year-old demographic. Only those under 11 and over 40 actually attended more 3D movies last year than in 2011.

3D apathy is spreading into the home video market as well. Amazon’s 3D Blu-ray top sellers (and I use the term “top sellers” advisably) include 618 titles. The top four 3D Blu-ray titles – Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z – are still in theaters and available only as pre-order. Pre-ordered titles usually hold a higher-percentage of their MSRP, but these four titles are all being offered near or less than half price. And all four are combo packs, which include a standard non-3D Blu-ray, DVD and either UltraViolet or digital copy, so the cut price also may reflect the declining popularity of optical disc formats in all varieties – the prices on nearly all the 3D titles on Amazon’s 3D Blu-ray list have been similarly slashed.

3D is dead – again

Everyone should have seen this coming. 3D, at least in the movie theater, is now in its fourth incarnation, and none have been particularly long-lived or successful.

There was a brief 3D fling in the silent era initiated by the 1922 release of The Power of Love, released in 1922 (but now lost), the first commercially released full-length stereoscopic 3D movie. The most famous 3D frenzy was kicked off by the low-budget/high-earning Bwana Devil in 1952. But then as now, technology and objects thrust violently into audiences’ faces produced scintillating spectacle but lousy story telling. A third technology-over-story telling 3D movie wave broke in the 1980s, initiated by Jaws 3D, which ended as ignominiously as the first two.

Some of today’s 3D spectaculars such as Hugo and Life of Pi integrate the technology more organically into the film making, but these seem to be the exception to the comic book adaptation rule. Interest in theatrical 3D also is likely affected by Hollywood seeking, once again, another revenue stream reflected by higher 3D and IMAX ticket prices.

In the home, however, it isn’t story telling – or the lack thereof – that’s killing 3D. It’s our short attention span and need for sofa multi-tasking.

The second screen conundrum

Indifference – or outright dislike – to 3D at home is obviously all about the glasses. But it’s not simply the wearing of them or, in the case of active 3D, having to recharge them. It’s also about the second screen.

According to Nielsen, 85 percent of mobile device owners use their tablet or smartphone while watching TV at least once a month, 40 percent on a daily basis – and this doesn’t count those of us who watch TV and continue to work with a laptop on our lap.

And if you’re wearing these indoor 3D sunglasses, you can’t both watch 3D and see what’s on your second screen.

And since high-end TV buyers are the most likely to have both a 3D TV and use a second screen while watching TV, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people aren’t watching 3D at home.

Perhaps there’ll be another 3D TV fling when 4K, and its ability to display full 2K HD passive 3D, becomes ubiquitous. But passive 3D doesn’t solve the second screen viewing conundrum. Only glassless 3D will allow consumers to view multiple screens simultaneously, and it’s likely to be a long time before that science fiction becomes a reality.