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TV: where do we go from here?

From 2006 to 2009, American consumers were buying TVs at an astonishing rate. Even at the peak of the recession in 2008, new flat screen TVs stood out as one of the few luxury household items that continued to show strong growth in sales.

Now, reality has set in. Along with continuing economic hardship, many analysts suggest that most people who wanted a flat screen TV have already bought one. In December, research firm iSuppli reported that sales of LCD TVs in 2010 had declined for the first time since the technology was introduced back in 2006.

For once, the headlines coming from last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas were not about giant screens and the latest TV technology. Sure, there were plenty of TVs to look at, but the huge displays had to take a back seat to the considerably smaller screens associated with tablet computers and smartphones.

So what is the immediate future for TV? Are we facing an extended period of retrenchment, or is there a technology or innovation just around the corner that is going to kick-start the market back to life? Let’s take a look at some of trends that emerged from CES and see if there is anything to get excited about.

3D or not 3D?

3D TV has yet to catch the imagination of the public. Part of it is the expense and the natural reluctance of consumers to invest in what they see as a work-in-progress. But it’s also those goofy glasses, and the possibility of eyesight damage, particularly in younger children, from long-term exposure to 3D images.

To get over the health risks, a number of TV manufacturers are now developing what the industry refers to as “passive 3D”, a less expensive and more comfortable 3D option. Vizio, LG, and Toshiba are all investing in passive 3D, and many believe that these are just the first salvos in a 3D format war that will continue for quite some time.

Meanwhile, the networks are doing their part to promote the new technologies, offering a host of new 3D programming options.

Can TV and the Web play nicely together?

Despite Google’s missteps with Google TV, attempts to bring the Web to the living room are not going to go away. Apple is nothing if not persistent in pushing Apple TV, and cross-over services like Netflix and Hulu will make sure that Web-based TV stays on the networks’ agenda.

But perhaps the biggest push for connected TV will come from the manufacturers themselves. Samsung, Panasonic, Vizio, and LG all announced completely revamped Internet-enabled models, which in many cases include built-in Web browsers and easy-to-use remotes.

The one lesson to take from the ineffective Google TV initiative is that access to the Web from the TV has to be simple and intuitive. The last thing the average consumer wants to do when they sit down in front of a TV is pick up a manual!

Thin is in

Of course, it wouldn’t have been CES unless some manufacturer came out with “the biggest TV in the world.” This time it was Panasonic, with a 152-inch 3D plasma behemoth that featured a single 4,096 x 2,160 pixel panel. It didn’t have a price tag but experts believe it could cost up to half a million dollars.

But it appears that size no longer matters as much as it did. There are very few homes that can comfortably accommodate anything over a 50-inch screen without turning the living room into a home theater. In contrast, style will never go out of fashion, and that means the thinner the better. Here, OLED TVs from LG and Samsung took the honors, with sets that are less than 0.3-inches thick.

All in all, it looks like a year of consolidation, as the TV manufacturers concentrate on getting 3D right and improving Web interfaces. If you are all set with your flat screen HDTV, you might want to sit back, let others be the early-adopters, and take another look in 2012.

Comment by Milcah, posted 1/12/2011, 8:01 PM:

I can not get into the whole 3D tv thing. Uggh. I'll personally be glad when the whole 3D tv fad plays out. I'm personally fine with my current tv. I'm not too big on the camera's either. I don't like the idea of having to where the glasses as you pointed out. I would like to see what the Nintendo 3DS has to offer, but it's ashame the possible damage it can cause to young children's eyes. To me it's just not a whole lot of fun to have a video game that your child can't enjoy at least with you.
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