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Why 3D TV Will Flop

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In a fleeting craze, media and tech companies are leaping before they look.

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"Hey Paul, glad you can make it. Pumped for the game? Yeah, us too. Hey, did you bring your 3D glasses? No? Ah, well, we don't have any extras. Listen, do you mind just manning the snacks and drinks for the next three hours? Appreciate it, Paulie."

Expect to hear many variants of that conversation starting in June and lasting until corporate execs come to their senses.

Fueled by hit films like Avatar and Up, interest in 3D has hit a fever pitch -- some would argue its zenith -- and both cable networks and electronics manufacturers are taking notice. Their conceit: If it works in the theaters, why not in the living room? And that inherently flawed notion is leading companies to sink billions into a trend that won't last long.

The foremost name in televised sports, ESPN (DIS), announced it will kick off the ESPN 3D network on June 11 with a dynamic showcase of the World Cup soccer match -- effectively breaking ground as the first completely 3D television network. Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Comcast (CMCSA) have had preliminary talks over broadcast rights.

Kinks in the network, however, already seem apparent. Firmly dedicated to the no-rerun schedule, ESPN 3D will go dark when there aren't any 3D games to broadcast. So unless it expands way beyond the 85 live sporting events planned for the year, there often won't be any dimension to enjoy -- much less three.

Speaking with USA Today, ESPN's Executive Vice President for Technology Chuck Pagano compared the 3D transition to the shift toward HD. "We don't have all the answers," he admitted. "We asked the same questions back in the HD days. Is this going to be better? Is this going to be worse?"

Hate to break it to you, Chuck, but no one was worried about sharper image quality catching on with the public.

Following not too far behind ESPN's gamble is a joint venture among Discovery Communications (DISCA), Sony (SNE), and IMAX (IMAX). At its launch next year, the nameless network will only air in the US and -- according to the joint press release -- will hopefully boost "consumer adoption of 3D televisions."

And therein lay the catalyst and the downfall to the 3D TV initiative.

3D TV will require brand new television sets and related equipment, which companies like LG Electronics, Panasonic (PC), and Toshiba were eager to show off this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. Special 3D goggles are required for each viewer, unless the set has Auto Stereo Display -- which then only works if everyone is situated directly in front of the set at a specific distance. Otherwise, it's a blur. Your best bet: Shell out for a pair for each family member and expected guest.

The cost of all this equipment could run into the thousands, preventing a surge of early adopters still too strapped to even buy a regular HDTV or wise enough to wait until the technology catches on -- if it ever does. And skimping on a 15-inch screen won't cut it: For 3D to be effective, it needs to be huge -- which is why the technology is best seen in a movie theater, as it has been for decades.

And what about new content? 3D technology is costlier than even HD programming, boosting production costs much higher. And although Pixar's (DIS) earlier Toy Story titles were overhauled to feature 3D, the process is incredibly labor-intensive and, again, very costly -- even for a CGI movie. Going through a studio's back catalog and revamping the footage to meet 3D standards is a headache not many studios or editors want to endure. Plus, is there much of a demand to watch Scrubs or Hitch with an extra visual depth?

Speaking of headaches: 3D is an eye-straining struggle for many. As crowds exit a theater showing a 3D feature, there will inevitably be pockets of audience members voicing the pain and vertigo that only constantly refocusing your eyes for more than two hours could produce. Are people willing to undergo that barrage of images for an entire evening of TV?

Understandably, studios and electronics manufacturers are excited over the possibility of a new gimmick to fill theater seats and keep couch potatoes paying for cable. But they fail to realize that the cost will far outweigh the charm and, maybe, 3D is only a once-in-a-while treat. You know why nobody rides a roller coaster to work? Because not only would it lose its appeal after the first week, it's completely impractical.

The world is about to witness the rebirth of Nintendo's Virtual Boy debacle -- only on an epic scale worthy of James Cameron.

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