3D Could Be Big in 2011—With Lower Prices and No Glasses

3D might have been the belle of the ball at CES 2010, but when it came to the real world, the party came to an abrupt end.

Samsung 3D TV
Source: samsung.com
Samsung 3D TV

Put off by the bulky (and often ridiculous looking) glasses, the high prices and the lack of decent content, mass-market consumers didn’t show a lot of interest in welcoming the latest gee-whiz technology into their homes. That indifference could begin to fade in 2011, however.

With a slew of new product offerings, 3D will continue its assault at retail this year. LG, Samsung and Panasonic all plan to include the technology in a wider array of products— most importantly in TV sets and Blu-ray players that aren’t being aimed at the high-end, early adopter audience.

That will help reduce the price gap that accompanied the launch of the sets—a process manufacturers put in motion towards the end of 2010, when prices on 3D sets plunged as much as 50 percent from the initial prices they carried in March.

When all is said and done, though, it may not be television that launches the 3D revolution in homes. It could be a video game company.

CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report
CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report

Nintendo, in late March, will begin sales of its 3DS handheld gaming system—a device that allows players to see stereoscopic 3D images without the need for special glasses. Analysts have noted that while the company still faces noteworthy competitive challenges from Apple, the 3DS is likely to draw significant consumer interest and be a hot seller well into the holiday period.

Beyond its gaming elements, Nintendo has also been in talks with Hollywood studios about releasing home versions of their 3D films for the device, giving it a dual functionality. Nothing formal has been announced, but the company has indicated talks are going well.

Meanwhile, as prices on 3D TVs (and PC monitors) drop, a wave of 3D cameras and camcorders is about to hit as well.

Panasonic plans to release five 3D camcorders this year, costing $1,000 and up, as well as a 3D lens for its Lumix line of DSLR cameras. Sony, meanwhile, announced plans to include 3D capabilities to its cameras, camcorders and Bloggie line of cameras.

The expansion of the technology is meant to subtly make it more a part of the fabric of people’s lives. Watching a mediocre movie in 3D may not be a real draw, but perhaps being able to relive your daughter’s soccer game or a fun vacation with the tech backing it would be more appealing.

Ultimately, though, it’s television manufacturers who are counting most heavily on 3D. Average prices across the industry have fallen consistently for the past several years as demand for new sets has dimmed. Companies like Panasonic and Sharp initially saw 3D as a chance to reverse that trend.

It hasn’t happened as quickly as they’d hoped.

Best Buy, in fact, singled out slow 3D sales as one of the reasons for its December earnings disappointment.

“They’re a little bit slower than I think the industry wanted it to be,” said EVP Michael Vitelli. “3D, I think, is just one of those that has to ramp up. There needs to be more content for it and we’ll be able to see a little bit more of that over time as their retail prices start to change.”

Analysts remain confident in the technology as well. DisplaySearch expects 2010 shipments of 3D sets to only total 3.2 million worldwide, with only 1.6 million being sold in North America. By 2014, though, it expects that global number to surpass 90 million.

“North American consumers in particular appear to be playing a waiting game,” noted Paul Gagnon, DisplaySearch’s director of North America TV research. “Set makers have trained consumers to expect rapid price falls for new technology, and consumers seem happy to wait a little.”