3DTV Is Officially Never Going to Happen

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That was it. That was 3DTV's best chance. ESPN just decided to discontinue its push for 3DTV sporting events, deciding its time would be better spent focusing on traditional high resolution broadcasts and Tim Tebow daguerreotypes. And that, in a nutshell, effectively kills 3DTV's chances of ever going mainstream.

ESPN giving up on 3D is crippling in a way that seems almost impossible for 3DTV to overcome. That's because if anyone ever really wanted 3D on their TV for anything but movies, it was for sports. In a survey from 2010, around the time 3DTVs were first becoming widely available, 61 percent of people polled said that sports were the thing they'd most want to view on a 3DTV. Movies will remain more or less fine—though often the 3D Blu-ray is simply bundled with a collector's edition or the regular edition—mostly because they're such a boon to box office numbers. But sports were the foothold into the wider world of TV.


It's hard to imagine a more perfect canvas for 3D on your television than sports. That makes sense on a few cascading levels. For one, sports are played three dimensionally, with depth and perspective that simply isn't necessary or utilized on traditional programming. Shows like the evening news and How I Met Your Mother are scripted or staged in ways that make 3D, essentially, superfluous. It would be nice, more or less, but wouldn't really add much in the end.


To go with a debatable improvement to traditional programming, it also poses some unique technical headaches. Taking advantage of 3D is complicated, because a lot of the visual tricks you can use with a regular display—depth of field, odd framing, etc—can look positively dreadful in 3D. As Mark Wilson wrote for Gizmodo's review of Avatar back in 2010, "An out of focus shoulder breaking the corner of the frame is pretty much the worst implementation of 3D I could imagine." For Breaking Bad or Mad Men, that might be a problem. For sports, which keeps the entire court or field in focus at all times? No such thing.


Then there's just the purely visceral experience of watching sports. LeBron James flashing into the frame, delivering a dunk like lightning from a god. Lionel Messi whirling through the penalty box, whipping a pass to a teammate at the far post, as the depth and the angle of that teammate's run shows through in 3D just a little more clearly. Adrian Peterson making very fast men seem impossibly slow. You want to see moments like this in 3D. Or, well, you would if you had any interest in 3D to begin with.

It's possible that the way we watch TV now—or at least how the tech-forward vanguard that would adopt the technology and introduce it to the world—just doesn't mesh with 3D, or more specifically, 3D glasses. We text and tweet and trawl through Twitter lists looking for GIFs, in real time, as we're watching games or episodes of touchstone shows like Game of Thrones. It's just a different experience than it was just a few years ago, when 3D was making its renewed push. And while 3D glasses might be something you're willing to endure when sitting down to watch a movie—an act that still, blessedly, common etiquette keeps second screening out of—no one wants that mess while peeking down at a phone or tablet or laptop in between plays, or while folding laundry and half-paying attention to True Blood.


Maybe now, if like ESPN everyone else finally gives up the ghost, we can finally start seeing some more practical advancements in TV tech. There's 4K, of course, though that's a ways off, and who knows when it'll come off of its gaudy price points. There any number of attempts at smell-o-vision tech,which hey, why not. And there's also the stuff we just haven't thought of yet, or haven't taken seriously enough to try in earnest. Transparent displays that can live in the center of a room as sort of windows, that become screens. Or bendable displays that we can fold up in our pockets, or that compress down onto a shelf. Maybe some weird tech that makes massive screens an affordable thing. The point is, if we put our energy into everything that isn't 3D, maybe we end up with something more useful.

It's tempting to say that burying 3DTV, or being plainly against the idea, is an anti-technology sentiment, that we're shoving off progress in favor of our comfortable old viewing habits. Rejecting sabermetrics for box scores, basically. But often we confuse a way forward for the way forward. 3D as we have it now is a progressive technology only in that it's different, not because it's an imperative for furthering how we watch TV.