3DTV and Internet TV were the big themes in TV at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, just like they were at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. Even with new buzzwords like “glasses-free,” “passive,” “polarized,” and “Google TV,” the home theater trends of 2011 will be awfully similar to the home theater trends of 2010.
Internet-ready home theaters have been “the next big thing” in content delivery since 2008, and to hear the manufacturers describe it, 2010 was the year of the 3DTV. Despite solid sales figures for 3DTVs -- 3DTVs are also the best 2DTVs, so it’s difficult to gauge adoption -- consumers still don’t seem to care much for the format.
In spite of the lukewarm reception, or maybe for a lack of better ideas, the industry doubled-down on the third dimension and the Interwebs, trying to finally push them into the mainstream.
The first generation of 3DTVs were a tough sell. The active-shutter glasses were prohibitively expensive (about $100 per pair), and sofa warriors were less-than-enthusiastic about wearing goofy, bulky glasses just to watch some TV -- when they could find anything to watch besides their pre-packaged copy of Monsters Vs. Aliens, that is.
Thankfully, a few major players stepped out with new ideas that could make 3DTV’s second generation more accessible.
Toshiba demoed the boldest TV set at CES: a glasses-free 3DTV. There were a few small glasses-free prototypes at last year’s CES, but nothing as large as Toshiba’s 56 and 65-inch configurations. Reuters reported earlier this month that Toshiba plans to release a few glasses-free sets in North America sometime this year, though they may not be the same TVs that they debuted at CES. Either way, that’s big news; even 3DTV skeptics have to give this one a look. Of the other heavy-hitters, Sony and LG also demoed glasses-free sets at CES, but said that they do not expect them to come to market in 2011.
Not as cool as glasses-free TV, but still much cooler than active-shutter glasses, LG and Vizio both demoed passive-type 3D sets at the show. Viewers will still need to wear glasses, but they’re polarized glasses, like the cheap, light, disposable kind worn at 3D movies in cinemas. The picture is brighter than on active-shutter 3DTVs, and the obnoxious, headache-inducing flickering and crosstalk effects aren’t an issue.
These glasses will be very cheap -- as little as $1 per pair, according to LG’s representative -- but passive 3DTVs will be significantly more expensive, inch-for-inch, than their active counterparts. Passive sets also have to cut the resolution in half for 3D content: 540 lines, rather than 1080. That’ll irritate the videophile purists out there, but everything irritates them; judging from reactions at CES, most viewers would rather watch a smoother, softer picture than a flickering, full-res one. Vizio already has a passive set for sale, and nearly a dozen more -- as small as 22 inches -- are set for release. LG will mostly focus on larger screen sizes.
Of course, there will still be scores of active shutter sets for sale this year, but at least consumers now have a choice. All 3D content will be viewable across all display types; passive sets will play the same 3D Blu-ray discs that play on active sets.
None of the 3DTVs matter if there’s nothing to watch on them. The industry knows that, and they’re working on new content, though maybe not fast enough. ESPN announced at CES that the ESPN 3D channel will begin 24-hour broadcast starting from February 14. More movies will be released on 3D Blu-ray this year. Several manufacturers announced that all of their Blu-ray players will support 3D Blu-ray going forward. In short, there should be much more stuff to watch in 3D by the end of 2011, but it’s unlikely to be enough to compel most consumers to splurge on a new expensive TV.
Then there was the glut of 3D cameras and camcorders announced at CES. Fujifilm’s W3 3D camera has been out since summer 2010, and remains the only true (two-lens, two-sensor) still camera on the market. But Sony and Olympus announced 3D-capable shooters, which use software tricks to create 3D still images. Sony and JVC both announced true 3D camcorders as well; Sony’s Bloggie FS3 was the most exciting, as it costs just $250. So even as the industry drags its heels to create watchable content, 3DTV owners can create their own.
The idea of the Connected Home Theater pops gains momentum every few months, then fizzles out a bit. The latest rush came from the release of Internet TV set-top boxes like the Logitech Harmony and Boxee Box. The honeymoon was short-lived; these boxes gather disparate content sources (streaming video, downloaded video, and sometimes cable/broadcast TV) into one excellent interface, but the major content providers block access to their programming through these devices.
The ultimate goal here is every movie, TV show, and Web clip, available to watch anywhere at any time, on any device with an Internet connection. We’ve seen great progress in the last two years, but we have not reached the seamless, couch-potato consumption nirvana that’s perpetually on the horizon. The traditional distribution schemes are still the most profitable (network TV has ads, cable has inflated subscription fees, production studios have physical media), so the battle for content will rage for years to come, especially if anti-competitive cartels like the newly (almost) minted NBC-Comcast continue to pop up.
That didn’t stop the industry from trying to push the idea at CES of a trans-device connected ecosystem, where all the gadgets in your home are connected and controllable from one location. Panasonic and Vizio both debuted a line of Android tablets to tie in with their TVs (and work as standalone devices, of course). Yahoo! also showed us a similar system that will tie in with their Connected TV platform; the advantage there is that it will work on existing tablets (no need for yet another gadget) and also that if you already have a connected TV, it’s likely that it already has Yahoo’s platform built in. Samsung showed an updated version of their everything-in-one remote as well, which looks and functions like an iPod Touch.
And of course, there was Google TV. The Internet TV interface has a soft presence at CES, on Google's orders, but Sony and Samsung displayed their Google TV-ready sets, and Logitech prominently demoed their Harmony box. Despite some first-gen bugs, it's an intuitive interface, but as mentioned is hurt by the limited access to current, must-have content (Hulu, for example, is blocked).
Most crystal ball-gazing is proven false in about three months time, but we’ll take a crack at it. 3DTV will fail to catch on, once again. It’s expensive, there’s still not that much to watch, the glasses are a deal-breaker, and there’s the undying public perception that it’s one huge gimmick. We're not sure if it will ever really catch on.
Meanwhile, the Connected Home Theater dream will gain more traction. More people will watch more streaming content across a greater variety of gadgets (TVs, tablets, computers, and smartphones). But until the content producers open up and put their libraries up for a la carte rental/purchase, the picture will not be complete.