Reports suggest that around five times as many 3D televisions will be shipped in 2011 as the previous year, although growing from a very small base. In a few years, half of all large television screens sold may be 3D capable, but that does not necessarily mean there will be much to watch or that people will want to wear special glasses to watch stereoscopic television. The future may be displays that do not require special glasses, but they are still some way away.

Market research company iSuppli, now part of IHS, as is Screen Digest, estimates that worldwide shipments of 3D TV displays will grow to 23.4 million units in 2011, up from 4.2 million the previous year. It further forecasts shipments of 54.2 million units in 2012, continuing to grow at the same rate, reaching 159.2 million in 2015.

To put those numbers in perspective, this suggests that 11% of flat panels sold worldwide in 2011 will be 3D capable, doubling to 22% in 2012 and 52% in 2015.

Riddhi Patel of IHS describes “a lukewarm response to 3D in 2010 when consumers balked at the high price of sets and the lack of 3D content.” In 2011 “brands are marketing 3D not as a must-have technology but as a desirable feature, similar to the approach they have taken with internet connectivity.”

In another report, In-Stat forecasts that Europe will see the highest number of shipments, with over 7 million 3D TV units in 2011. It suggests there will be 300 million households with 3D TV sets in 2015.

“Over the next few years, a greater percentage of large-screen TV sets will ship with the 3D feature,” says research director Michelle Abraham. “We expect 100% of all 40-inch and above DTV sets will eventually be 3D-enabled. This will not only cause shipments of 3D TV sets to increase, but will also grow the number of households worldwide with 3D TV sets. 3D content providers need not worry that consumers will be unable to view their content.”

Ovum, now part of Datamonitor, has found that 3D is a low priority for most broadcasters. In a report on The State of 3D, based on a survey of industry executives, 3D production or launching 3D channels was rated as the lowest priority for strategic investment.

“Several broadcasters, such as BSkyB, have launched 3D channels, but the high cost of 3D production, particularly live content, has limited content availability and delayed some channel launches,” commented Tim Renowden of Ovum. “Given the lack of enthusiasm for investing in 3D content production and delivery expressed by broadcasters, this situation is unlikely to change rapidly.”

It is relatively easy for manufacturers to make displays that can show 3D, either by adding polarizing filters to simply updating the firmware in the screen. That does not necessarily mean that there will be much to see or that consumers will want to watch 3D programming, at least while they have to wear dark glasses to do so.

Speaking at the 3DTV World Forum in London, Kevin O’Neil, head of video on demand at Virgin Media, said that displays that did not require viewers to wear special glasses should be brought into homes “as soon as possible”.

“Glasses-free would be a great boost for the industry,” echoed John Cassy, the director of Sky Arts was recently given responsibility for Sky 3D programming. “However, there is a lot of opportunity in the meantime.” He said that Sky wanted to make 3D a mass-market proposition, much like it did with high-definition.

Although manufacturers have shown autostereoscopic displays that do not require special spectacles, and some are bringing them to market, the viewing experience is currently limited and it will be many years before they are widely available. Which is not to say that they will not get better, but meanwhile 3D TV simply compromises the quality that can be delivered through high-definition in order to achieve its illusion of depth.

That said, some programming might benefit from 3D, tennis possibly being one. The French Open tennis is once again be covered in 3D and carried by a number of operators, with Eurosport coverage of the entire tournament available on Virgin Media in the United Kingdom, both live and on demand. The Wimbledon tennis finals will be shot in 3D, although the BBC has yet to reveal its plans for the coverage.

Daniel Nagler, who is responsible for 3D and HD at the BBC, told the 3DTV World Forum that 3D is “as far away from the mainstream today as a year ago”.

“To understand 3D, we need to see if it can truly enhance television,” she said. “We don’t know this yet and we need to learn this, learn what audiences take from a 2D and a 3D experience. It may be beneficial, but it may well be a gimmick and we need to work together to figure this out.”

At this stage it is not clear whether the caution of the BBC is well-founded, or it is handing responsibility for market innovation to other providers like Sky, as it did with high-definition.

With many broadcasters apparently ambivalent about 3D TV, the market is likely to be driven by movies and games. “This leaves a heavy burden on packaged content, such as Blu-Ray DVDs, and streaming content as the primary source of 3D content for consumers who have purchased or intend to purchase 3D TVs,” adds the author of the Ovum report. Games are likely to provide an important driver of adoption, he said, as the incremental costs of 3D production are relatively low.