3D TV: the phoenix

Sometimes They Come Back: 3D TV, with its long and troubled history, is a technology that has experienced alternating fortunes over time. It should come as no surprise that it is currently in a state of dormancy, following the revival of recent years: 3D TV, we are certain, is destined to renew itself and make a comeback in the not-too-distant future. The foundations of this technology lie in the insights of English physicist Charles Wheatstone, who invented stereoscopy in 1838, a technique that creates the illusion of three-dimensionality from a pair of images. However, its first applications date back to the following century, with the first stereoscopic TV experiments conducted in 1928 by John Logie Baird in London.


Since then, 3D technologies have experienced cycles of popularity and obscurity. An example of this is 3D cinema, which boomed in the 1950s and 1960s and re-emerged, thanks to digital technology, in the 2010s. The most recent turning point was in 2009 with the release of the first chapter of Avatar, the fantasy saga directed by American filmmaker James Cameron. The immense popularity of the film prompted major studios to produce 3D versions of numerous movies, few of which, however, possessed the same spectacular and emotional appeal. In theaters, audiences seemed willing to overcome their natural reluctance to wear 3D glasses to enjoy the effect, but not the additional cost of the ticket. As a result, the revival of 3D in cinema lasted only a few years.

The renewed enthusiasm for the format in the early 2010s had a significant impact on the TV sector as well. Thanks to the features and potential of digital televisions and investments in 3D content production, we witnessed a rapid spread of this technology within a few years. According to research and consulting firm DisplaySearch, global sales of 3D televisions reached 2.2 million units in 2010, with an impressive progressive increase in subsequent years: 24.1 million in 2011 and 41.5 million in 2012, despite higher selling prices compared to regular HD televisions. Supporting hardware sales were cinematic content and equally spectacular productions by broadcasters worldwide: alongside movies, shows, and documentaries, sports – from World Cup football matches to basketball and golf games – were the primary drivers of the sector. In terms of units sold and products made, significant figures were achieved, but evidently not enough to ensure the economic sustainability of 3D TV. The gradual reduction in 3D films production further pushed the industry to progressively reduce its support. We are still far from overcoming the main obstacle for home viewing: the 3D glasses, essential for perceiving the 3D effect. Research in this field is moving towards 4K autostereoscopic displays, but ongoing experiments are still in their early stages.

At this stage, 3D seems destined to develop in areas other than television, such as virtual and augmented reality, driven by gaming. However, current and future technological developments leave ample room for the possibility of its resurgence. Will this be the right time?