3D TV Dies - Is it Really The End?

Woman watching TV on couch
franckreporter/Getty Images

Let's not beat around the bush: 3D TV is dead. I know, it's sad news for those who were 3D TV enthusiasts, but it's time to face facts. There will be no further 3D TVs made. In fact, most manufacturers stopped making them in 2016.

Before I get into the "why it all failed," it's important to know why it even started. It's something I call the Avatar Effect.

Although 3D movie viewing goes back decades, the release, in 2009, of James Cameron's Avatar was a game changer.

With the undisputed worldwide 3D success of this film, movie studios not only started pumping out a steady stream of 3D movies into movie theaters, but TV makers, beginning with Panasonic and LG, jumped in with the "bright" idea of making 3D available for the home with the introduction of 3D TV. However, that was the beginning of several mistakes.

So, What Happened?

It turns out, a lot of things came together to end 3D TV before it really even started. But if I was to sum it up in three ways (I'll go into more detail below), I'd say:

  • Unfortunate Timing
  • Expensive and Incompatible Glasses
  • Extra Costs

Let's take a look at these three and the other issues that plagued 3D TVs from the start.

The Poorly Timed Introduction of 3D TV

In the case of 3D TV — the first mistake was the timing of its introduction. The reason: The U.S. had just gone through a major consumer buying disruption with the implementation of the 2009 DTV transition, in which all over-the-air TV broadcasting switched from analog to digital.

As a result, between 2007 and 2009 millions of consumers either purchased new HDTVs to meet the "new" broadcast requirements, or analog-to-digital TV broadcast converters so that they could keep their older analog TVs working a little while longer. This meant that when 3D TV was introduced in 2010, most consumers were not ready to discard their just-purchased TVs, and reach into their wallets again so soon, just to get 3D.

The Glasses

The next hurdle: faces. Bad timing was just the first mistake, you had to wear special glasses on your faces to appreciate the 3D effect. And, get this, there were competing standards on the way to view 3D content.

Some TV makers (led by Panasonic and Samsung) adopted a system referred to "active shutter". In this system, viewers had to wear glasses that used shutters that alternately opened and closed, synchronized with alternately displayed left and right eye images on the TV to create the 3D effect. However, other manufacturers (led by LG and Vizio) adopted a system referred to as "passive polarized", in which the TV displayed both the left and right images at the same time, and the required glasses used polarization to provide the 3D effect.

However, a major problem was that the glasses used with each system were not interchangeable. If you owned an Active Glasses 3D TV, you could not use passive glasses, or vice versa. To make matters worse, even though you could use the same passive glasses with any 3D TV that used that system, with TVs that used active shutter glasses, you couldn't necessarily use the same glasses with different brands. In other words, glasses for Panasonic 3D TVs might not work with a Samsung 3D TV as the sync requirements were different.

Another problem was cost. Although passive glasses were inexpensive, active shutter glasses were very, very expensive (sometimes as high as $100 a pair). So you can imagine the costs for a family of 4 or more or if a family regularly hosted movie night.

For more on the difference between passive and active 3D glasses, refer to our companion article: 3D Glasses Overview

Extra Costs (You Needed More That Just A 3D TV)

Uh-oh, more costs ahead! In addition to a 3D TV and correct glasses, to access a true 3D viewing experience, consumers needed to invest in a 3D-enabled Blu-ray Disc player and/or buy or lease a new 3D-enabled cable/satellite box.

Also, with internet streaming starting to take off, you needed to make sure that your new 3D TV was compatible with any internet services that offered 3D streaming content.

In addition, for those that had a home theater setup where video signals were routed through a home theater receiver, a new receiver would be required that was compatible with 3D video signals from any connected 3D Blu-ray Disc player, cable/satellite box, etc.

The 2D-to-3D Conversion Mess

Realizing that some consumers might not want to purchase all the other gear needed for a true 3D viewing experience, TV makers decided to include the capability of 3D TVs to perform real-time 2D-to-3D conversion - Big Mistake!

Although this allowed consumers to watch existing 2D content in 3D right out the box, the 3D viewing experience was poor - definitely inferior to viewing native 3D.

3D Is Dim

Another problem with 3D TV is that 3D images are much dimmer than 2D images. As a result, TV makers made the big mistake of not incorporating increased light output technologies into 3D TVs to compensate.

What is ironic, is that beginning in 2015, with the introduction of HDR technology, TVs began to be made with increased light output capability. This advance would have benefited the 3D viewing experience, but in a counter-intuitive move, TV makers decided to dump the 3D viewing option, focusing their efforts on implementing HDR and improving 4K resolution performance, without keeping 3D in the mix.

3D, Live TV, and Streaming

3D is very difficult to implement for live TV events.

In order to provide 3D TV programming, two channels are required, so that those that didn't have 3D TVs could still watch program normally on one channel, in addition to those wanting to watch in 3D on another. This means increased cost to broadcast networks having to provide separate feeds to local stations, and the need for local stations to maintain two separate channels for transmission to viewers.

Although multiple channels are easier to do on cable/satellite, many consumers were not interested in paying any extra required fees, so offerings were limited. After an initial number of 3D cable and satellite offerings, content providers such as ESPN and DirecTV, dropped out.

Also, although Netflix, Vudu, and some other internet streaming content channels provide some 3D content, 3DGo, a 3D streaming service offered on Vizio, LG, Samsung, and Panasonic 3D TVs, which provided 3D movies from several movie studios, discontinued its service in 2016.

Problems At The Retail Sales Level

Another reason 3D failed was the poor retail sales experience.

At first there was lot of retail sales hype and 3D demonstration displays, but after the initial push, if you walked into a lot of retailers looking for a 3D TV, the sales people no longer provided well-informed presentations, and 3D glasses were often missing or, in the case of active shutter glasses, not charged or missing batteries.

The result, consumers that would have been interested in purchasing a 3D TV would just walk out of the store and never come back, not understanding what was available, how it worked, how to best optimize a 3D TV for the best viewing experience, and what else they needed to enjoy the 3D experience at home.

Also, sometimes it was not communicated well that all 3D TVs can display images in standard 2D. In other words, you can use a 3D TV just like any other TV in cases where 3D content is not available, if 2D viewing is desired or more appropriate.

Not Everyone Likes 3D

For a variety of reasons, not everyone likes 3D. If you are viewing with other family members or friends, and one of them doesn't want to watch 3D, they will just see two overlapping images on the screen.

Sharp actually offered glasses that could convert 3D back to 2D, but that required an optional purchase and, if one of the reasons that the person didn't want to watch 3D in first place was because they didn't like wearing glasses, having to use a different type of glasses to watch 2D TV, while others are watching the same TV in 3D was a non-starter.

Watching 3D On A TV Is Not The Same As A Video Projector

Unlike going to the local cinema or using a home theater video projector and screen, the 3D viewing experience on a TV is not the same.

Although not everyone likes watching 3D regardless of whether it is at a movie theater or at home, consumers, in general, are more accepting of 3D as a movie going experience. Also, in the home environment, watching 3D using a video projector and a large screen, provides a similar experience. However, viewing 3D on a TV, unless on a large screen or sitting close, it is like viewing through a small window, meaning that the field of view is much more narrow, resulting in a less than desirable 3D experience.

There Is No 4K 3D

Another setback for 3D TV was the decision not to include 3D into the 4K standards infrastructure, so, by the time the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc format was introduced in late 2015, there was no provision for implementing 3D on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs, and no indication from movie studios to support such a feature.

What The End of 3D TV Means Going Forward

In the short term, there are still millions of 3D TVs in use in both the U.S. and around the world (3D TV is still big in China), so movies and other content will still be released on 3D Blu-ray for the near future. In fact, even though 3D is not a part of the Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc format, all players released as of 2017 still play 3D Blu-ray Discs.

Whether you have a 3D-enabled Blu-ray or Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player, and a currently working 3D TV, you will still be able to play your current discs in your collection, as well as any forthcoming 3D Blu-ray disc releases. There are about 400 3D Blu-ray Disc movie titles available, with more still to come in the short term. Most 3D Blu-ray Disc movies also come packaged with a standard 2D Blu-ray version - Check out some of our favorites.

Looking at the long term, 3D TV could make a comeback. The technology that was developed can be re-implemented at any time and modified for 4K, HDR, or other TV technologies, if TV makers, content providers, and TV broadcasters wish it to be so. Also, the development of glasses-free (no-glasses) 3D continues, with ever improving results.

Would 3D TV have been successful if TV makers taken more time to think about timing, market demand, technical issues regarding product performance, and consumer communication? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but several major mistakes were made and it appears that 3D TV may have run its course.

In consumer electronics, things come and go at steady pace, such as BETA, Laserdisc, and HD-DVD, CRT, Rear-Projection, and Plasma TVs, with Curved Screen TVs the next to possibly fade away. Also, the future of VR (Virtual Reality), for consumers, which requires bulky headgear, is still not cemented. However, if vinyl records can make an unexpected big comeback, who is to say that 3D TV won't revive at some point?

In the "meantime", for those that own and like 3D products and content, keep everything working. For those that desire to purchase a 3D TV or 3D Video projector, buy one while you still can - you may still find some 3D TVs on clearance, and most home theater video projectors still provide the 3D viewing option.

Was this page helpful?