The "Avatar effect" that was supposed to make 3D TV so popular last year failed to materialize, but manufacturers, ever optimistic, say a wider selection of films and some modest technology improvements should make 2011 a better year.
This time last year, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that 4.3 million 3D TVs would be sold in North America in 2010, but the number turned out to be closer to a million, said James Willcox, a senior editor with ConsumerReports, citing estimates from two manufacturers.
As many predicted, a lack of 3D content and the hassle of having to wear special glasses to watch TV held adoption back. Sales were also hurt by the miserable economy and some practical difficulties with demonstrating 3D TVs at retail. (The 3D glasses have to be tied down or people walk off with them.)
Still, industry executives on a panel discussion at CES said 2011 will be better. Jonas Tanenbaum, a marketing VP with Samsung Electronics America, was bold enough to predict a six-fold increase in North America sales this year, to about six million TVs.
His confidence stems partly from the gradual increase in 3D content being provided by movie studios, games makers and broadcasters. Twenty-three 3D movies made it into wide release last year and at least 60 are scheduled for the next two years, said Robert Mason, president for consumer electronics at RealD.
And broadcasters are learning the tricky business of shooting with two cameras to cover live events in 3D, he said. "They turn up with a truck the day before a game and they get something to your home that looks amazing. Sky has done an amazing job with Premiership soccer," Mason said.
ESPN will meet its target of 100 3D events in its first year of production, and from Feb. 14 it will start to broadcast 3D content 24-7 on its 3D channel. "It's our Valentine's gift to you," said Bryan Burns, ESPN vice president for strategic business planning and development.
But one thing that won't propel 3D TV forward any time soon is glasses-free viewing. Despite technology demonstrations here from Sony, Toshiba and others, executives here said a system good enough for mass market use is still three to five years away.
They hope improvements in the 3D glasses on offer will make them more palatable. Samsung showed a few pairs in its booth that weigh less than earlier models and are better balanced. The electronics have been moved from the front to the back of the ear piece so they sit more comfortably on the head.
Samsung also showed improvements to its technology that converts 2D programming to 3D in real time. It doesn't match the quality of original 3D content but it gives consumers who've shelled out for a 3D set something else to watch.
Almost all the glasses on show at CES are active -- the type that open and close each lens rapidly to produce the 3D effect. Passive glasses, which use polarization to present a different viewing angle to each eye in turn, are cheaper and lighter but seen as suitable at the moment only for theaters.
Despite missing their sales targets, executives here said 2010 was no disaster. If they hadn't set their sales targets so high, ConsumerReports' Willcox noted, it might have been considered a good first year.
And in any case, he said, the latest 3D TVs on show here have some of the best 2D picture quality ever offered. So if consumers still don't fall for 3D again this year, at least the marketing folks have something to fall back on.