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The Trojan Horse of 3DTV

ESPN’s news that they plan to discontinue their 3D channel at the end of the year has the tech industry asking, “Is 3D dead?”

3D has ebbed and flowed for 50-plus years and most recently burst back onto the scene with the initial introductions of 3DTVs at the 2009 International CES. With these product introductions at CES, 3D became a home entertainment technology for the first time.

As with all new technology introductions, initial sales were slow. Technology diffusion follows S-shaped adoption curves, and it takes time for consumers to become aware of the technology and subsequently bring it into their homes. 3DTV wasn’t the motivating purchase factor for a large swath of consumers that many within the industry had hoped.

While ESPN is halting their 3D channel, other content producers like Pixar Studios remain committed to the 3D format. James Cameron is nearly done writing “Avatar 2” and “Avatar 3,” which have planned releases of 2014 and 2015, respectively. Both will be 3D movies. The home 3D ecosystem is still coming together — right along the path predicted by traditional diffusion models.

At the same time, consumers are buying 3DTVs — even if they don’t really know it. U.S. factory unit sales of 3D-enabled televisions are expected to reach 5.7 million this year, a 39 percent growth from 4.1 million in 2012, and this is after growing by 50 percent in 2012. This year approximately 17 percent of all TVs sold will have 3D functionality (source: U.S Consumer Electronics Sales & Forecast, January 2013).

Yes, 3DTV never realized its potential to accelerate TV replacements. But on average, U.S. households buy a new TV every three years and increasingly these TVs have 3D capabilities. 3D now settles in among the host of features included in the latest TVs — and is a standard feature for all almost all high-end television sets purchased today.

This isn’t to say 3DTV will one day fully engulf all entertainment. 3DTV will make for a more rich entertainment experience in some situations, but probably not all. While pieces of the 3D ecosystem will likely continue to ebb and flow, the home 3D experience isn’t disappearing just yet.

Shawn DuBravac is the chief economist and research director for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).