There will be nearly 50 million 3DTV displays sold worldwide in 2015, up from just over 3 million in 2010, according to one forecast. Within the same timeframe around half the homes in the United States could have a 3D capable display, according to another. These projections reflect the aspirations of suppliers, rather than clear evidence of consumer demand.

Insight Media expects nearly 10 million 3DTV displays to be sold in 2011, with 17 million the next year, 25 million in 2013, 35 million in 2014 and nearly 50 million the following year. That represents cumulative sales of 140 million over the next six years. It makes for an impressive growth curve but is extrapolated from expectations and assumptions about consumer excitement and acceptance rather than evidence of actual adoption.

To put these figures in perspective, there were 140 million LCD televisions sold in 2009, and over 200 million televisions in total, as estimated by DisplaySearch. Total sales were led by Samsung, with approaching a quarter of the market, followed by LG, Sony, Panasonic and Sharp. Together these companies account for over 60% of television display sales.

Assuming that a similar number of displays are shipped in 2010, the forecast of 3.3 million 3DTVs represents fewer than 2% of televisions that will be purchased. Any exponential growth beyond that will be dependent on the availability of compelling media to drive demand.

“Insight Media has 10 analysts covering the exploding 3D market,” said its President, Chris Chinnock. “We wanted to use the best team in the industry to produce the best 3DTV forecast to date. Our methodology is comprehensive and transparent, so readers can judge if this is indeed a quality piece of work.”

The methodology attempts to reconcile top-down and bottom-up approaches, examining the total available market and modelling penetration rates, combined with consideration of consumer expectations, price competitiveness and the availability of suitable media.

What it does not appear to take into account are the social and human factors involved in viewing television as opposed to the cinema experience — whether people will really want to sit around wearing dark glasses in their homes.

For display manufacturers, 3DTV is the next new opportunity after HDTV. The cost of adding stereoscopic support to a screen may be marginal but it is a significant opportunity to upsell or at least to protect a premium price point. It is likely that a large proportion of screens sold will be 3D capable, if only because all other things being equal there may be little reason to buy one that is not.

Many analysts are positive about the prospects for 3D in the home, although there is little actual evidence on which to base this optimism. When asked, many consumers are excited by the prospect of 3DTV, but this may not necessarily translate into a significant change in viewing behaviour.

Futuresource Consulting believes that within four years around half of homes in the United States will own a 3D capable display, with a third owning a 3D compatible Blu-ray disc player.

“With a number of leading hardware brands all vying to carve out an early position in the 3D TV and BD market, 3D Ready TVs and players will seed the 3D market in much the same way as the HD market was primed five years ago,” says John Bird, a strategy analyst at Futuresource. “By 2015 we expect the majority of TVs available will be 3D-Ready and the normal replacement cycle will result in a good proportion of households in the US, Japan and Europe having a 3D-capable display.”

That is not to say that we will soon all be watching 3D television. Much of the viewing is likely to come from 3D games and movies, with some sport and special events, and no doubt a certain amount of adult material.

The prospects for 3DTV are being driven by technical capability and supply side factors rather than viewers. Most people do not complain about the lack of depth in a television picture. But then they did not necessarily ask for high-definition, multichannel sound, or even colour. Once these became available, they provided differentiation which created consumer demand. The adoption of 3DTV will be as dependent upon sociological as much as technological factors.

2010 3DTV Forecast Report: A Comprehensive Worldwide Forecast of 3D Television Unit Sales by Region and Technology is published by Insight Media.