“Industry savior” is a pretty lofty goal, but that’s exactly what television manufacturers need 4K Ultra HD TVs to be.
The current digital television market is a tough one to say the least. Companies like Sony (SNE), Sharp (SHCAY), Hitachi (HTHIY) and Panasonic (PC) are facing slumping display prices and thus profit margins thanks, in part, to increased competition.
But that’s where the 4K Ultra HD TVs and their impressive resolutions come in. As InvestorPlace tech expert Brad Moon recently explained: “4K Ultra High Definition is the latest attempt to convince you to spend big bucks in upgrading the TV in your family room.”
The problem is, 4K Ultra HD TVs are shouldering that hope because the last so-called industry savior — 3D TVs — didn’t quite fit the bill.
While manufacturers were banking on — and headlines were screaming about — 3D televisions just a few years back, the technology was, for all intents and purposes, a failure. Consumers hardly traded in two dimensions for a third, and the TV industry didn’t enjoy thicker margins or once again realize profits as a result.
So why did 3D fail where TV-makers are hoping 4K will succeed? Here are three simple reasons and how these new Ultra TVs might be able to avoid them:
#1: It started off on the wrong foot
Many thought 3D technology would seamlessly migrate from the big screen to the living room, especially after blockbusters like Avatar captured the attention of lens-wearing audiences.
The problem is that even in theaters — the birthplace of the viewing technology — consumers are too often underwhelmed.
When I interviewed consumers, a few common complaints about 3D movies were the increased cost of already-expensive movie tickets, the misuse of 3D technology in genres like children’s animation — which don’t always make it worthwhile — and the discomfort of 3D glasses.
To top it off, the success of 3D movies often came because it was the only option offered (see: the recent re-release of The Lion King). “Voluntariness of use” is commonly cited as an important factor in the adoption of new technology. While low voluntariness does force the diffusion of 3D technology in movie theaters, it poses a barrier to the purchase of a 3D consumer electronic (like a TV) down the road.
The good news is that 4K doesn’t have to worry about this factor because theaters haven’t left consumers with a bad taste of the technology in their mouths.
The bad news is that consumers really haven’t had a taste at all.
#2: We are media multitaskers
The shift from theater to living room comes with another huge obstacle: consumer viewing habits. Nowadays, roughly one-third of the time people spend with mass media involves simultaneous contact with two or more other media.
Therefore, as Kate Bowles smartly put it in her book Society with Spectacles: “The lion, or soccer ball, in your lap (from 3D technology) is radically incompatible with the laptop that is already there.” 3D viewing is fine for a novelty viewing event like a movie, but casual TV-watching is a different story.
Then there’s the glasses. Oh, the glasses. Beyond reported eye pain and headaches that come from the glasses, there’s also the simple inconvenience of having to wear them at all. And while 3D TVs sans glasses have been announced, the accessory is already mentally associated with 3D technology — not an insurmountable hurdle, but a hurdle nonetheless.
More good news for 4K: No glasses, and nothing jumping in your face. You’re free to text and tweet at your leisure.
#3: Consumers were confused
One of the biggest problems with 3D technology is that the average consumer often didn’t know enough about it. Sure, 3D technology functions like a normal TV, but folks I interviewed were unsure about the specific logistics.
One common question: “Do I have to watch all channels in 3D?” The uncertainty surrounding the technology was an obvious barrier to diffusion, even though the answer was the right one. 3D TVs are generally great 2D TVs as well.
Another lingering question for 3D TVs was whether there would be enough content to make the purchase worthwhile, and that issue brings us to the first problem shared by 3D and 4K technologies.
See, content is a huge deal to viewers; a study regarding DVD players showed that “consumers feel that network size and title availability are more important than hardware-related facets of the product, such as definition and storage capacity.” Assuming the same holds true for the television sets themselves, we have a problem. The appeal of 4K TVs relies almost completely on definition, while the technology is off to a slow start on content. In fact, 4K content is only available online at this point.
How big of a stumbling block is that? Well, according to Moon, “If the content problem isn’t resolved … Ultra HD runs the risk of repeating the pattern of 3D televisions,” even though it’s primed to avoid several of 3D’s biggest problems.
That’s the last thing the TV industry needs.
As of this writing, Alyssa Oursler did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.