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3D Television has stalled because viewers are three dimensional

09 Jul 2013  |  Richard Marks 

After both the BBC and ESPN put their 3D development on ice - citing a lack of consumer appetite for the technology - Richard Marks, director of Research the Media, asks how do we research what people will actually do as opposed to what they think they want?

"The future that you anticipated has been cancelled. Please remain in your seat and wait for further instructions."

So starts OMD's recent 'English Electric' album, rich in nostalgia for an 80s view of a future that never happened. This came to mind on reading last Thursday's announcement that the BBC was putting its 3D 'experiment' on hold for three years.

This may have seemed strange coming just 24 hours after an announcement promoting the BBC's Red Button coverage of the Semi Finals at Wimbledon in 3D. However, even that earlier announcement referred to 3D coverage as part of a series of 'experiments' and continued a number of recent BBC public comments that were at best doubtful about 3DTV's future.

So, for the BBC, in a matter of months 3D has gone from being the future of TV broadcasting, to a red button extra, to being put on hold.

Obviously the BBC is not the only game in town and Sky continue to broadcast some content in 3D. However, for Sky the extra investment can presumably be justified in extra box sales and customer loyalty, whereas for the BBC it's all about production costs per viewer.

Meanwhile, in the US last month, sports TV giant ESPN pulled the plug on their own 3D channel after three years, a hugely significant step writing off years of investment, interpreted by US analysts as meaning that 3D is 'dead on arrival.'

Variously, experts are blaming the problems on the technology not meeting consumer expectations, the silly glasses or the economy. However, the main question; the one at the very heart of the issue, is whether viewers actually ever really wanted it in the first place. As James McQuivey of Forrester has said "The whole problem with 3D TV is it was a solution to a problem consumers didn't have."

So is 3DTV dead? Media consultant Graham Lovelace was involved in Sky's 3D launch in 2010. While still a fan of 3D, from a technical perspective he cites a dearth of good quality 3D content and some bad early viewer experiences.

However, for Lovelace, 3D isn't dead and higher resolution (4K) is the key: "3D is evolving: Higher resolution screens have a natural 3D quality to them - the picture is still 2D but it's so realistic the brain is fooled into thinking it has depth. Higher resolution offers the prospect of auto-stereo or glasses-free TV. This gets better each year but you still need to sit in a 'sweet spot' to get the 3D experience."

So let's assume that the technical issues with 3D are overcome and that eventually 3D evolves beyond glasses. In that context, the BBC's decision to pause makes perfect sense. It gives time for the final form of the technology to evolve. More importantly, it also gives time to establish the real demand for 3D.

I would argue that what the 3DTV story illustrates so far is the major difficulty in researching the likely uptake of new technology and services. It is no coincidence that 3DTV was hailed as the future of TV at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, just after Avatar hit the cinema screens. You emerge from a West End cinema, your head blown off from a wondrous 3D experience and someone asks you if you'd like the same on your TV at home and of course you say 'Yes'.

But how do we research what people will actually do as opposed to what they actually think they want? I have been involved in research projects at key points in the evolution of digital TV and so I know from personal experience that research can help, but only so far. Consumers are not two dimensional, they are complex, contradictory and infuriating - they are human beings.

Back in the 90s before DTT went live, I clearly remember lurking around a hotel in rainy Dorking, whilst researchers enticed people off the street to watch clips of the Last Night of The Proms shown at differing bitrates to see if they noticed the difference. When prompted they did, but clearly the differences mattered far more to us than they did to the people on the street.

As was discussed at a recent MediaTel event, we in the industry are not 'normal': we love this stuff. I have spent the last ten years pointing out to friends and relatives that their TVs were variously showing the wrong aspect ratio, were still on analogue, or were not actually on the HD channel at all.

Usually, I have to sit twitching like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, itching to grab their remote and sort it out. Sometimes they let me, but more to shut me up than any perceived improvement afterwards: it's only TV, the picture's OK, stop being a geek.

Meanwhile, research projects we did in the early days of red button advertising clearly showed how much people would look forward to really interacting with TV ads, accessing additional advertising content and ordering pizza via the red button. They didn't really, they were just being polite and British; these services wouldn't cost them anything so why turn down something for nothing? If it turned out to be rubbish then they just wouldn't use it. It was and they didn't.

Conversely, trying to explain what an early PVR was and why anyone would possibly want one was a major research challenge. Sky+ records programmes? My VHS does that. Pause live TV? Why would I want to do that? VOD? There's a Blockbuster at the end of my road. And yet, unlike red button ads and now 3D, PVRs have revolutionised the way we watch TV. As Steve Jobs put it: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

In the context of that quote, 4K (or Ultra HD) may very well be the key to it all. To quote the BBC's Mark Harrison: "We are years away from being able to make and transmit in 4K, yet it matters far more than 3D ever did."

On the face of it, from a research point of view, it has some similarities to researching PVRs. In terms of topline, obvious consumer benefit it's a hard sell - most consumers will feel that their TVs are now sharp enough, thank you.

However, it is what 4K (and beyond) facilitates that will bring real consumer benefit. The advantages to programme makers at the editing and production stage, in terms of manipulating images, zooming, cropping and colour balance will improve the quality of TV that we get (remember that Blade Runner 'Enhance' scene?) Meanwhile, 4K will enable 3DTV technology to overcome the limitations it faces in a simple HD environment. 3D will get better and then we will discover how much people want it.

4K may well be a transformative technology that brings consumer benefit, but from a research point of view I am reminded of wise words from Mick Jagger a couple of weekends ago during the BBC's brilliant 2D Glastonbury coverage:

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find: you get what you need."

So 4K may well be what people need, but will they ever really want 3DTV? The biggest challenge isn't whether 3DTV can regroup and come back with something better, but estimating public demand. For that, research will need to be three dimensional and cut through what people say they want to what they will actually do.


Richard Marks is the Director of Research The Media. Find out more here.

These are my personal views and do not reflect the views of my employer.

I think Richard Marks' article is spot on. It is very difficult to predict what users will do vs what they want/need and Steve Jobs proved that you can create the need by convincing people that they need something as long as it looks attractive and has a great user experience.

But forecasting what a human will do vs what a human wants/needs? Wow, that is a new science on its own, right? It is a possibility.

Google might be near that because, apparently, they can track everyone that has an android phone/table, people using all their services e.g. search, navigation, Google+, Chrome, etc... so with a sample size of hundreds of millions they just might have enough data to do it but you still need models to do that AND THAT is the most complex part.

I also believe that 3D TV is a terrible user experience because of the glasses.

I do believe that 3D TV will be a success only when manufacturers simplify the user experience. So they could for example, create a TV with 4 mini projectors placed in each corner of the room creating the full 3D experience.

Some people might say, well, that is some sort of Holographic projection but I disagree because Holographic projection needs more than 4 projectors and a TV and I do believe that 3D TV can be done in such way and very cost effective. I already have a home theatre system at home so I am used to have something in the 4 corners of the room, therefore a wireless projection system installed in the 4 corners that interacts with the TV to project a 3D experience is my prediction for the future of 3D TV but that won't happen before 2020.

But the problem is that by 2025 we might have the first prototype of a Holographic projection cinema room and that is going to be very cool. Holographic TV will follow in 2030 but my guess is that you will have to have a special room setup for that.

Richard Marks might be thinking after reading my prediction that I am off my head... but here is a link to support my prediction.

So with Holographic TV not that far away will manufacturers invest on making the 3D TV user experience better? I think yes but it will be at least another 5 years before that happens.

Fernando Martinho
Global Technology Director
Kantar Media – Audiences
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