Do not adjust your sets
Ticket sales for 3-D movies at Kowloon's three IMAX cinemas are booming, but sales of 3-D televisions for the home have been slower than expected. Why? Are the bulky 3-D glasses, which nobody complains about in cinemas, unacceptable in the home? Or are most consumers only just getting around to buying their first high-definition television?
Research suggests that 3-D television will only take off when the glasses-free 'multiview' 3-D television arrives - and we've just seen the very first one.
The ZL2 from Toshiba measures 55 inches and will go on sale in Japan in December for about HK$85,000. There are nine views, or '3-D corridors' in front of the television, from where a convincing effect can be seen; but stand anywhere else and an image full of flicker and double images is the result. In our demo, three distinct 'sweet-spots' were physically marked on the floor with carpet tape in front of the ZL2.
Besides the problem of getting children to sit still for the duration of a movie, this is one 3-D television that's probably best watched alone. It performs much better in a total blackout, and includes face-tracking technology that detects a single viewer's position, and adjusts the 'lenslets' in the screen to create the finest quality 3-D effect.
It may not offer the last word in picture quality - it gave me a headache after a few minutes - but successful gadgets tend to be convenient rather than top quality. We're not convinced the ZL2 is either.
Paul Gray, director of European television research for the British analyst firm DisplaySearch, doesn't think the product is quite ready.
'It looks as though multiview technology is about five years away, although there will be some flagship products earlier,' he says, referencing not only the ZL2, but also 12-inch and 20-inch versions released by Toshiba in Japan late last year.
Other analysts suggest that multi-view 3-D televisions will only be watchable when they offer at least 15 separate views; it's only then that the viewer will be able to move around a room and see a 3-D effect from virtually anywhere.
Still, we wouldn't mind betting that glasses-free 3-D televisions will soon enter the mainstream market because the thirst for flat-panel televisions has dried up. It's mostly a Western phenomenon; saturated markets are preventing any growth for the big manufacturers. The advent of 3-D for the home, it seems, isn't the saviour it was thought to be.
'So far 3-D has not particularly excited consumers,' Gray says. 'That won't stop set-makers shipping lots of 3-D sets, but our direct consumer research across 14 developed and emerging countries has shown that consumers in mature markets are not particularly interested in 3-D.'
Hong Kong and major Chinese cities are classed as 'mature' and the rest of the mainland 'emerging', while beyond the United States, Europe and Japan, high-definition television is only now becoming mainstream. There's the usual split between country and city, but the market is expanding quickly in China; more than 8 per cent of all televisions sold in the second quarter of this year were 3-D.
'China's dual economic structure makes the [television] consumption in urban markets and rural markets different,' says Kathleen Zhang, senior television analyst at IHS iSuppli China in Beijing. 'In the urban market, especially in big cities, consumers are buying their second and third flat panel televisions, and the early adaptors are replacing their old flat-panel televisions with updated ones - with LED backlighting, 3-D capabilities or internet connectivity.'
In rural China much of the growth is driven not by a thirst for 3-D but by a simple desire for a flat television. 'Consumers in emerging markets are more price-sensitive - they earn less - and want smaller screen sizes than, say, the US or western Europe,' says Gray, who warns that unit growth won't be enough for LCD panel and television makers, who've all suffered bad financial results this year. 'Our consumer research in Asia shows surprising enthusiasm in emerging markets for 3-D - Indonesia and urban China show the highest scores. For these consumers, a television is a hi-tech, exciting product.'
Not only is China's television market growing at a higher pace than that of mature markets in North America, Europe and Japan, but this year it is set to become the world's biggest television market. Zhang thinks that there will be more television models designed especially for the Asian market, and less so for Europe and North America.
'Local and international brands have invested much in marketing 3-D televisions and 3-D movies to help improve awareness of 3-D in China, especially in urban markets,' says Zhang. And it's no surprise; domestic brands such as Changhong, Haier, Hisense, Konka, Skyworth and TCL may be dominant, but this is one of the few markets to offer growth opportunities. Expect to see a flurry of international brands stake their future on China's thirst for the third age of television.