3D smartphones: The quick death of a nascent technology

By Phil Goldstein

A little more than two years ago, at Mobile World Congress 2011, LG Electronics took the wraps off the LG Optimus 3D, which, as LG's promotional material put it, was "a stunning super-smartphone with unparalleled 3D performance." The phone was released at the height of the consumer frenzy around 3D TVs, which came a little more than a year after 3D film Avatar broke box office records, spurring a rush of 3D films and interest in the technology.

Yet two years later, the Optimus 3D looks less like a herald for an era of 3D smartphones and more like a cautionary tale of carriers and OEMs putting too much emphasis too soon on a still-developing technology. Other 3D smartphones followed, including HTC's Evo 3D, yet analysts and even carrier and handset representatives agree that the 3D content ecosystem was not strong enough to support continued development of 3D phones.  

"Wide 3D acceptance is still some years away," said Dr. Henry Nho, LG's chief research engineer and the lead engineer on its Optimus 3D and Optimus 3D Max phones.

The 3D push

The impetus behind including 3D screen and video capture technology in smartphones had less to do with the 3D ecosystem and more to do with the expanding capabilities of smartphones, especially the advent of dual-core mobile processors in 2010.

"I remember sitting in a meeting, summer of 2010, where both the engineering and product planning teams were present, and we were literally going through a list of 'exotic' things that we wanted to do but [had never been] on a smartphone," Nho said. He also noted that the company's development of its "NOVA" display made 3D on a smartphone possible because LG had worked to get the display to be bright enough.

HTC Evo 3D Sprint

HTC Evo 3D

Similarly, work on the HTC Evo 3D began in early 2010, according to Trevor Van Norman, Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) director of product marketing. He said Sprint and HTC, which declined to comment for this article, got together "to define the initial concept as part of our regular portfolio planning process." He said the companies wanted to build on the success of the Evo 4G, which Sprint launched in June 2010 to record sales. "So there was an interest in delivering super phone capabilities and improve on the original (better processor, display, battery, etc.)," he said.

Carriers seek differentiation

Above all, the carriers were seeking differentiation. Sprint announced its support for the Evo 3D in March 2011 and launched the gadget in June, around the same time that AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) threw its support behind the Optimus 3D, which it rebranded as the LG Thrill 4G.

Van Norman said Sprint "wanted to differentiate in the market with features that were relevant and evolutionary for the mobile space, and 3D was a differentiator." He also noted that the carrier wanted to tack onto the evolution of the home media market, which was filling up with 3D TVs from LG, Samsung Electronics, Sony, Toshiba and others.

"We really did our research, studying key market trends and how to leverage those to differentiate Sprint in the marketplace," Van Norman said. "3D was a trend the marketplace was seeing everywhere from movie theaters, television shows and even sporting events so we wanted to leverage this trend and in fact accelerate it."

The Evo 3D was the first device in the United States to sport a qHD 3D display, delivering a "glasses-free" 3D viewing experience. The phone captured 3D video in 720p via dual 5-megapixel cameras, and it was able to play it back in 1080p. Sprint cited these potential use cases for the Evo 3D's screen and 3D capture technology:

  • "Real estate agents can create and share 3D virtual tours of homes that let out-of-town buyers 'walk through' the house and truly experience the listings before they can see them live;"
  • "3D mapping of terrain will help build new and exciting features for navigation, and hikers will be able to get aerial views of the topography of rivers and mountains while in the backcountry;" and
  • "Families can 'relive' the excitement of their vacation and feel like they are there again."

AT&T also talked up the LG device's 3D technology, especially its rear-facing, dual 5-megapixel stereoscopic 3D cameras. AT&T also said the phone would access to a "portfolio" of 3D content, including "preloaded 3D games, the Gameloft 3D Store, preloaded YouTube 3D, access to 3D movies from mSpot and more."

"While consumer demand for 3D is relatively nascent, LG Thrill 4G both does 3D right and is also a superlative smartphone," Jeff Bradley, AT&T's senior vice president of devices, said in a statement at the time. AT&T declined to comment for this article.

AT&T's first commercial for the LG Thrill 4G.

LG said it was pleased with the response to its 3D smartphones. Nho said that to date LG has sold more than 1 million Optimus 3D smartphones, and more than half a million of the follow-up model, the Optimus 3D Max, which was exclusive to the South Korean market. "Maybe not the next big trend in smartphones, but we were satisfied with these figures," he said.

Van Norman said the reaction to the Evo 3D from analysts and bloggers was positive--he said they were "very impressed with not only the glasses-free 3D experience but also its form factor, hardware and software." Indeed, reviews at that time largely bear that out, though some griped about the phone's battery life and call quality. Van Norman declined to provide sales figures for the Evo 3D.

Despite not reaching eye-popping sales figures, Nho said LG is proud of what it achieved on the Optimus 3D. "Years of expertise in camera technology and vertically integrated business structure enabled us to introduce the world's first 3D device with our own technology and sell seven digits worth of them," he said. "I don't think many companies in this industry could have done what we did."

Lack of a content ecosystem bites

LG Optimus 3D

LG Optimus 3D

Indeed, not many companies tried. As this slide show attests, there have only been a handful of viable 3D smartphones outside of the Optimus 3D and Evo 3D, including the Sharp Galapagos 003SH for Japan and the Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D in South Korea. Yet amid a flurry of speculation ahead of the launch of the Galaxy S III in the spring of 2012, Samsung went out of its way to declare that it would not be brining 3D screen technology to its upcoming smartphones.

Why the reticence? The general consensus is that there wasn't a strong content ecosystem to support the devices.

Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart noted that the only mobile device with a 3D display that has achieved any level of major commercial success is the Nintendo 3DS. He said the reason the device was successful is because there is a great deal of custom, 3D content for that platform.

"It was seen as a gimmick," he said, referring to 3D smartphones. "For most of the things you do with the phone it was step backward."

Reticle Research analyst Ross Rubin also noted the lack of a content ecosystem for 3D phones, especially in terms of games for Android. "You need a virtuous cycle, and that failed to develop," he said. "There was not strong developer support and there was not broad adoption across high-volume Android handset vendors. The apps didn't appear, which failed to create demand for Google to build support [for 3D] into Android."

Sprint's Van Norman said that the carrier is always focused on software innovation and working with brands to meet its customers' needs. Right now, he said, Sprint has "not necessarily seen the right products or seen 3D as a critical platform for differentiation currently in the market." He also cited a weak content ecosystem as a reason for the lack of momentum. "Content developers and studios have been slow to evolve 3D content in television/video, mobile and online," he said.

"We are continuing to develop new 3D technologies internally but in this business, timing is everything," LG's Nho acknowledged. "We're convinced 3D is here to stay but we were probably too early. We can afford to wait and see how the market develops but right now, the focus is still on processor speed, display resolution and battery life."

Both Nho and Van Norman said that working on 3D phones showed their respective companies could innovate and that the action helped elevate their brands. Greengart too noted that trial and error is crucial in the mobile industry. "I think you need to do a better job around software and support," he said.

3D smartphones: The quick death of a nascent technology