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25 February 2016

3D still alive and kicking, while VR offers more options

February has seen the likes of Phillips, Samsung, LG, and Sky all confess that 3D is dead, and as with CES last month, this year’s Mobile World Congress has seen virtual reality (VR) be a hugely hot topic – so is VR replacing 3D technology and will it pass the test of time?

Earlier this month, three giants of the television world in Phillips, Samsung, and LG all announced that they would be cutting production of their 3D TVs, which came after Sky said it would be shutting down its 3D channel. Samsung will not be manufacturing 3D TVs in 2016, and LG will be reducing production from 40% in 2015, to 20% in 2016 – which only includes premium products.

While in Barcelona this week, LG, Samsung, HTC, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg grabbed all the headlines with VR related announcements. It’s no well-kept secret that the industry trends are shifting to 4K, UHD, VR, HDR, and perhaps even OLED, so when we met with Chinese 3D technology company SuperD at MWC 2016, we were extremely skeptical about its future plans. The burden of wearing glasses coupled with a lack of content has killed off 3D, however LG insists that there is still a market out there for 3D, and so does SuperD.

So with 3D ultimately being phased out in favor of VR, how is it that Shenzhen-Based SuperD claims it is thriving and expanding, now with 300 employees since its founding 11 years ago. SuperD was showcasing its new 3D Box at MWC 2016, a product which creates a glasses-free or “bare-eye” experience using eye-tracking technology to re-render pixels to avoid the feeling of nausea which often occurs when glasses are removed when watching 3D content. As with watching 3D in a cinema with glasses, this still means that 3D content can only be viewed at a certain range, and within a certain angle, but at an expanded angle to that of traditional 3D viewing – when this range or angle is exceeded, the content will revert back to 2D. The 3D Box is about the size of an iPad mini, and transforms into a “Z” shape where it projects 3D images onto a transflective panel – which looks almost like a hologram, and is currently only compatible with iPhones.

Perhaps what’s more exciting, but in equally dangerous territory, is that SuperD was showcasing 3D smartphones and 3D tablets, however, these are currently only “solutions” to be sold to smartphone manufacturers, and SuperD CEO Michael Hsu told us that SuperD is currently in talks with several smartphone manufacturers in China. Hsu claims that SuperD, and 3D technology as a whole, is still thriving and expanding, despite seeing 3D ultimately being phased out of the TV arena.

SuperD’s 3D Box costs around $300 which is quite astonishing considering you can get a Gear VR headset for around $99, probably the leading dedicated VR platform which creates a similarly 3D visualization – and both pieces of hardware require a smartphone to be plugged in. Additionally, the combination of Samsung’s VR headsets, smartphones, and apps, have a huge potential customer base.

Toshiba, Sony, Foxconn and Tianma are among the major customers of SuperD to have adopted its technology, and Hsu of SuperD truly believes that 3D smartphones and tablets will take off in China sooner than in the US and Europe – in fact, he said SuperD could announce US and European deals later this year. We stressed that surely there is a huge lack of 3D content, but Hsu was adamant that actually more 3D content is being produced now than ever before – claiming that Hollywood now produces around 40 to 50 3D films a year. However, this figure is still a drop in the ocean in the movie market and VR’s top trump over 3D is gaming. Also it depends which 50 movies. There are only about 100 Hollywood movies funded each year for global distribution through the major distribution companies, but then again there are another 2,500 a year which go out to a smaller audience.

Of course there is also huge potential for VR technology in broadcasting live events such as sports and concerts, but there was also such a potential in 3D, and the reason it didn’t take off was ultimately because of the face-wear burden – so could VR to go the same way in this space? On mobile platforms, 3D was a lot less graphically intensive than on consoles or PCs, with a more casual gaming experience arising from powerful processors, but not as powerful as consoles. Consoles haven’t exactly been hard to come by in China since their ban in 2000. Existing in a grey market, most cities had open street markets where gamers could acquire the hardware needed to generate the 3D worlds that were banned due to government fear of “adverse effects” on the nation’s population.

The truth is that once a screen is produced that can give the eye all it needs, then there is little on the far horizon to distinguish between screens. Of course, 3D without glasses is one of the remaining areas of potential differentiation, as well as 16K zoom-able screens, but these will be slow to come to the masses, and even if one company has the edge here, not every home will want one, so it won’t upset the market too much, certainly not as much as a TV that is non 4K-ready TV today.