What was once a promising technology has been all but forgotten. A little over a decade ago, 3D TVs were hailed as the future of television. 3D movies like Avatar were all the rage and the TV industry wanted to ride this wave right into your home. As every major television manufacturer jumped on the 3D TV bandwagon, it was all but certain to succeed. 

Fast forward five years later, and 3D TV was quickly nonexistent. Panasonic, LG, and Samsung all tried to make 3D TV feel like the future. Hard as they tried, they just couldn’t make 3D TV the future. So, why did 3D TVs fail when so many manufacturers lined up to make it work?  The answer is somewhat complicated and yet straightforward at the same time. 

Let’s dive right in!

Quick Facts

Release Date Spring 2010
IndustryTelevisions
ManufacturersSamsung, Sony, Panasonic, LG, Vizio
GlassesActive and Passive
Notable ModelsSamsung ES8000, LG LW6500, Vizio XVT3D650SV, Panasonic TC-P65VT50

The Significance of Avatar

You might not think twice about it now, but there was a moment back in 2009/2010 where TV manufacturers saw the opportunity to bring the 3D big screen experience right into your home. Avatar’s theatrical release and subsequent climb to the highest-grossing movie of all time (at the time) set off a flurry of beliefs that consumers wanted the same technology at home. 

The caveat to all of this is that 3D technology wasn’t exactly new in 2009. The technology goes as far back as the 1920s and more than 100 years ago with the 3D movie, The Power of Love. While Avatar was far from the first 3D movie in the 2000s, it wasn’t until its release that television manufacturers really started to rush their 3D products to market. 

It’s fair to say that if Avatar had been received poorly by the public and a box office bomb, 3D TVs might not have happened at all. Television manufacturers might have considered 3D as the reason for Avatar’s failure and said no to mass-producing home televisions with the same technology. 

The Launch of 3D TVs

The modern history of 3D TVs begins at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2010, as major television manufacturers show off their 3D TV models set to launch to consumers. Avatar’s release in December 2009 saw the launch of 3D TVs some three to four months later after CES 2010 by Samsung and Panasonic. The first 3D models had been under development for years, but Avatar led Samsung and Panasonic to accelerate their release. 

Early sales numbers were promising as 2.26 million 3D televisions shipped in 2010 followed by 24.14 million in 2011 and 41.45 million in 2012. It’s these early years that mark the prominence of the technology and its quick takeover of family rooms all across the country. 

By 2013, 3D television shipments started to decline, and come 2016, 3D TV development was all but finished as the last few models were sold off and production ended. 

Sports Showed Promise

If you look back during 2010, a Nielson study showed that 64% of respondents indicated that sports programming was something they were “most interested” in seeing on a 3D TV. This level of interest gave rise to the likes of ESPN 3D, which launched to plenty of fanfare in June 2010. ESPN planned to tie together its great sports content and, “enhance the fan’s viewing experience…at the forefront of the next big advance for TV viewing.” 

It seemed clear at the time that 3D TV was quickly becoming the biggest thing in television, at least as far as the hype. Unfortunately, hype and success don’t go hand-in-hand, and ESPN 3D would shut down just three years after due to the lack of “…3D services to the home.”

The same occurrence around 3D sports also happened in Australia as two channels testing the technology determined 3D technology wasn’t garnering the level of support necessary to continue delivering with sports content. 

And Just Like That, 3D TV Fails

No matter how much hype and promise 3D looked to offer as the television industry made the jump from analog to digital, it just wasn’t meant to be. As quickly as interest in 3D TV fell, you might think that it was due to one specific factor, but the reality is that it was a few factors that took down 3D TV just as fast as it rose to prominence. 

watching 3D TV
With the popularity of the movie Avatar, consumers and manufacturers alike were sure that 3D TVs would be a hit. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

The Glasses Problem

Anyone who has ever been to a 3D movie at a theater or a 3D experience at a theme park knows that 3D glasses play a central role in the experience. Unfortunately, in the case of 3D televisions, this was also one of the biggest pitfalls. 

As the race to be first to market took off, both Samsung, Sony and Panasonic launched their TV lineups with “active glasses.” In order to get a 3D effect, active glasses would feature a shutter that rapidly opened and shut, alternating at 120 times per second between the left and right eye, to trick your brain into believing you were viewing in 3D. To be fair, active glasses were the better of the two competing models and images were crisper because of this technology. However, active glasses are heavy, require batteries, and are generally uncomfortable to wear for a lengthy period of time. 

For television manufacturers like LG and Vizio, “passive glasses” were the better choice and more closely matched what consumers wore during 3D movies at a movie theater. They were much lighter than active glasses and didn’t require any power but they also offered an inferior 3D experience overall. 3D pictures were fuzzier and didn’t do as much as active glasses to prevent eye strain. As passive glasses by LG and Vizio launched much later than competing models by Samsung and Sony, it immediately hurt their chances of being more widely adopted.  

All of the technology aside, the glasses, both active and passive, were expensive. If a pair failed, replacing them could easily reach over $100 a pair and that’s a not-so-insignificant cost for families, especially. 

The Viewing Experience

There is a lot to be said about the difference between watching a movie at home versus watching one in a theater. A movie theater is an experience you likely only get once in a while and when you do, you have a set of expectations. In the case of Avatar, the incredible colors of the film paired with excellent sound and 3D all culminated in a movie that kept people pouring into theaters for months. 

Try as they might, television manufacturers couldn’t match the theater experience at home. The glasses were not particularly comfortable, you likely had to buy a different Blu-ray player that was compatible with 3D and it just wasn’t the same. The “thrill” of watching movies in a theater doesn’t translate at home and it quickly became apparent that 3D TVs induced eye strain that impacted owners. 

Another nail in the 3D TV coffin was the notion that a lot of the available content for 3D televisions was retroactively converted and often not very well. The results could vary from really great conversions to downright awful and that turned a lot of people off from focusing on the 3D capabilities of their televisions.

One final consideration centers around the idea that many people tend to leave televisions on in the background. As it turned out, very few 3D TV owners wanted to wear 3D glasses for hours at a time. 

Third Time Isn’t the Charm

After two unsuccessful attempts at bringing 3D television to the masses in 1928 in Britain and then again in Britain once again during World War II, this 2010-2013 experiment marks the third time 3D TV has failed. As the public lost interest in 3D TV models by 2013, the format was dying a quick death. While pre-planned models still made it to store shelves until 2016, the format really is viewed as ending in 2013. 

The timing coincidentally (or not at all coincidentally) occurred at the same time as 4K television began to hit the market in 2012. It’s fair to say that this technology, which delivers vastly improved picture quality over 3D televisions, had more impact on consumer buying decisions over the past decade than 3D television could ever deliver. 

Even as television manufacturers tried different technologies toward the end of 3D’s popularity, it was too little too late. Auto-stereo 3D, which did away with the horrid glasses, couldn’t salvage the technology. 

Will 3D TVs Ever Return? 

Some five-plus years after 3D televisions mostly disappeared from store shelves, it’s still possible a resurgence could occur. What began with the release of Avatar back in 2009 could find success again with the Avatar sequel releasing in both 3D and 2D in December 2022. As unlikely as it seems that 3D TV technology could find itself back in the homes of millions this time next year, anything is possible. 

What is interesting is that the mix of 4K and 3D technology is a much better experience than the likes of 1080p, which is what many models used between 2010 and 2013. Between that and the advent of technology to provide a 3D experience without glasses means anything is possible. Still, the likelihood of a major resurgence seems unlikely at best and downright crazy at worst. 

Up Next

The Rise and Fall of 3D TVs FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is a 3D TV?

A 3D TV is one that uses stereoscopic imaging to trick our brain and eyes into believing that the image you are seeing has 3D depth. A 3D television will show two different images at slightly different angles and your brain combines them creating a 3D effect. 

Why did 3D TVs fail?

There is no single answer as to why 3D TVs failed, but a combination of manufacturers not understanding the market properly, uncomfortable glasses, and high prices for both the televisions themselves and the glasses all contributed. 

When did 3D TVs find their peak?

After launching in 2010, 3D TVs really found their stride in 2011 and 2012 when sales peaked before starting to drop off in 2013. 

Are 3D TVs still around today?

No major retailer is selling 3D TVs today.

What is the difference between active and passive glasses?

Active 3D glasses are battery-powered glasses that rapidly open and close a shutter between your left and right eyes so fast that it creates a 3D effect. Passive glasses have a filter that makes odd lines visible to the left eye and even lines visible to your right eye creating a 3D effect. 

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