Anyone for 3D television? Anyone? Anyone?

Set upgrade costs are not the only reason viewers have shunned the technology

 

The commentary gold provided by Boris “he’s playing on all cylinders” Becker was not the only odd thing about the BBC’s presentation of the Wimbledon tennis finals. Every so often, the tournament’s main anchor, Sue Barker, enthusiastically drew viewers’ attention to the fact that they could, if their set was enabled, watch the matches in 3D.

This involved the occasional cutaway to the 3D camera installed on Centre Court, alerting viewers to the fact that 3D cameras uncannily resemble Johnny 5, the robot from Short Circuit fondly remembered by those of a 1980s vintage.

But viewers who had earlier that week read comments by the BBC’s head of 3D, Kim Shillinglaw, in the Radio Times, or any of the related news reports, may have wondered why Barker was obliged to promote the option at all, given the BBC had already decided it was suspending its 3D experiments due to a “lack of public appetite”. Natural history programme Hidden Kingdom and November’s Doctor Who 50th anniversary special will be the final shows to be broadcast in 3D by the BBC for at least three years. It’s not alone in its 3D ennui: in June, sports network ESPN announced it was to close its 3D channel in the US, citing low uptake.

For the BBC, it’s a “good old pause”, Shillinglaw said. “We will see what happens when the recession ends and there may be more take-up of sets.”

Indeed, consumer spending in western economies hasn’t exactly bounced like new balls on a grass court since the 3D-mania days of January 2010, when Avatar was doing a roaring trade on cinema screens and manufacturers’ unveiling of just-off-the-assembly-line 3D sets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was described by the New York Times as a precursor to a “full-fledged 3D turf war”.

Fast forward to 2013, and most viewers can still only imagine what spins of the ball, wobbles of the net cord and droplets of champion sweat look like in three dimensions. But it turns out that even people who did shell out and have access to the BBC 3D platform haven’t been too keen on it either.

Half of the estimated 1.5 million households in the UK with a 3D-enabled television watched the already mind-boggling London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in 3D, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – only 5 per cent of potential viewers tuned into watch Christmas 3D programming, including Queen Elizabeth’s annual message, in stereoscopic glory.

Reviews of the BBC’s trial 3D tennis coverage were, like the performance of the top seeds in this year’s championship, mixed. On the one hand, watching tennis unfold in 3D is credited with giving the viewer a keener sense of the speed, force and accuracy of professionals’ slices, lobs and passing shots, albeit from one side of the net only.

On the other hand, it’s 3D, and 3D is always rubbish.

The problem with 3D television, as opposed to the 3D cinema experience (which has introduced the phrase “filter times by 2D” to the movie-booking process), is that when people watch television “they concentrate in a different way”, as Shillinglaw put it – in other words, they often don’t concentrate at all.

Then there was the “hassly” facet of the whole folly. The 3D sets on the market require viewers to either sport the dreaded glasses or pick specific viewing angles. Both eventualities run counter to the social aspect of watching television (as a group activity or with a second screen on your lap). The reported need to close the livingroom curtains to eliminate flickers of light also didn’t fit well with daytime events such as Wimbledon, used by British retailers as a marketing opportunity to shift Pimm’s and all things summer.

Although the BBC has always prided itself on getting behind new technology early, it never had the most to gain from 3D in the home taking off. This is partly because the technology’s full potential seems entirely more suited to the interactivity of gaming than it is to blissfully passive viewing, and partly because, unlike ESPN parent company Disney, the BBC isn’t also in the business of funding high-budget 3D movies that need a secondary viewing outlet.

The technology could yet improve in the years to come, and the price tags on 3D-capable sets will likely fall. But future efforts by broadcasters to cement 3D habits in the average viewing household may ultimately be thwarted by one simple fact: 2D television, tennis included, is thrilling enough as it is, thanks.

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