A 3D TV Bubble is emerging

The Avatar movie has become a blockbuster, stimulating interest in 3D TV for the home. Sony, which put its TV wares on display at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is betting its future on 3D. Yes, this is the same Sony that was the premier consumer electronics company in the past and then lost it to Apple and others who were more innovative. All this interest in 3D will be just another bubble.

3D is not new. The stereopticon goes all the way back to the mid 1800s. Stereoscope viewers are still popular today, such as the View-Master toy. 3D movies are also nothing new--but have been always something of a gimmick.

3D involves dual cameras (or some form of prismatic lens) to capture the imagery from two slightly different perspectives. These two images then need to be presented separately to each eye so that the illusion of depth is created. All this makes a costly and complicated system. Display technology needs to separate the two images, and spectacles need to be worn so that each eye sees its appropriate image. There are a number of ways to do this, but to achieve a mass market, standards would be required.

All that this complicated and costly gadgetry achieves on the home TV screen is something that reaches out to you from the screen - the content of the programming is not enhanced or improved in any way. Rather than looking at the screen, you look through the screen like a window. 

Monochrome TV achieved a 50 percent market penetration in the U.S. in 8 years. Color TV took twice as long, even after a backwards-compatible system was invented. An entire new system was needed for color TV. 3D TV is more involved in terms of production issues for questionable additional entertainment value.

Some believe that 3D TV might be the "killer application" that will drive the demand for ultra-broadband to the home. However, 3D involves horizontal shifts in picture elements, which would be particularly appropriate for bandwidth compression. 3D would increase the bandwidth by less than 10 percent, if at all.

So in the end, 3D is still a gimmick--a costly and complicated gimmick requiring special production equipment, new TV sets, and spectacles for viewing--and, of course, standards. 3D TV is just another over-hyped medium--a bubble.

A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus of Communications at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. At Bell Labs during the mid 1960s, he created some of the earliest 3D stereoscopic computer animations. His 3D animation of a rotating 4D hypercube at YouTube has had over 90,000 views.