3D: Are we there yet?

Ben Parfitt
3D: Are we there yet?

Bringing glasses-based 3D to the masses is not a new phenomenon.

From the ill-fated Virtual Boy to the flimsy anaglyph glasses given away with kids’ magazines, various gaming and tech firms have tried to master the concept.

Over the last two years, 3D has once again found its way back onto everyone’s lips. Even if you set aside next week’s launch of a certain handheld, this two-character buzzword is cropping up everywhere. It’s on the latest televisions, there are dedicated channels for it and we’re almost always handed a pair of special glasses when going to see the newest films.

And gaming is trying to drive the technology forward. While 3D in games is not as high-profile as it is in other mediums, major proponents such as Sony and Ubisoft are keen to make it more prominent. Even Call of Duty: Black Ops – which, lest we forget, was the biggest selling game of last year – featured a Stereoscopic 3D mode.

So why is everyone getting so excited if 3D failed to take off before?

“There are two key reasons for the new explosion in 3D gaming,” says Patrick Goss, editor of TechRadar and its spin-off 3DRadar.

“Firstly, the technology has come a long way from the anaglyphic colour tech that blighted our childhoods and is significantly cheaper to produce.

“Secondly, there is a massive push being made by technology firms to stir our interest in the Next Big Thing. Everyone from camera makers to TV manufacturers has got on board as we are being urged to forget 3D’s gimmicky past and accept that it’s here to stay this time.”

Of course, 3D technology has been available for some time on PC with products such as nVidia’s GeForce 3D Vision. But, as with anything that involves tinkering inside a computer, that product has yet to capture the attentions of the masses.

But both Sony and Microsoft are keen to point out that their consoles are 3D ready, with the former including 3D settings in all of its major titles, including Killzone 3, MotorStorm Apocalypse and Uncharted 3. Games companies are definitely investing in the tech, but awareness remains low.

EARLY BIRDS

Part of the problem is the lack of an initial installed base. While 3DTVs may be common on the shopfloor, they are still rarely spotted in consumers’ homes. It’s an issue that needs to be resolved before 3D can truly take hold.

CVG editor Tim Ingham says: “It’s only really early adopters of new tech who have been buying up 3DTVs in the last year – with many consumers only recently splashing out on high-end HDTVs.

“3D in the home will only really hit its sweet spot when consumers feel they have enjoyed good value from old tech. Price will no doubt drop over the next couple of years, which will help turn heads on the High Street.”

Many agree that once the technology is more accessible (and more importantly, cheaper), it is the gamers that will contribute the most to the inevitable rise of 3D as a mass-market entertainment format.

“Gamers are often keen early adopters of new technology and this has also been true of 3D,” says Mick Hocking, senior group studio director for MotorStorm developer Evolution Studios. “Many people expect 3D games to be one of, if not the main driving force for the adoption of 3D in the home. The response from the industry has been very positive.”

Ubisoft’s EMEA chief marketing and sales officer Geoffroy Sardin agrees: “Just like HD first found a proper consumer home with gaming I believe it is the same with 3D.

“If just one company was pushing 3D you could begin to call it a fad, but there are many supporting it – consumer electronic firms like LG, Panasonic, and Samsung, camera makers like Fujifilm, and of course gaming companies like us and Sony.”

BLOCKING THE VISION

As with any new technology, however, such optimism is offset by those yet to be convinced. Many argue that there are too many barriers to prevent 3D from becoming a permanent fixture in the home: high costs, the variety of the tech available and, of course, those glasses.

“3DTV is a very slow developing market,” says Microsoft’s director of entertainment and devices Stephen McGill. “It’s projected that less than 0.5 per cent of all TVs in the US this year will be 3DTVS, and that they will only make up five per cent of the TV installed base three years from now.”

Goss adds: “It’s all down to cost. Just like you would struggle to get a television without HD these days, I think we’ll soon expect our TVs to be 3D ready. When this happens, 3D will start to gain traction.

“The need for glasses is overstated as a problem; people will adjust if the experience is good enough.”

Some firms are exploring how 3D can be used in new ways, but there is a balance to strike. Companies can’t afford to alienate those who don’t have access to 3D technology.

“The key thing is using this as a creative tool – the best 3D films are the ones where 3D is thought about and properly implemented,” says nVidia PR manager Ben Berraondo. 

“It is similar for games. Developers start to see what works best with 3D we’re seeing more and more impressive games. In fact, I think the games industry is ahead of films because we’ve been thinking in ‘3D’ for much longer.”

Sardin agrees: “Similar to the way movies are made today, many games will optimise for 3D in a way that adds to the overall experience but doesn’t denigrate it if the customer doesn’t have 3D or simply prefers 2D.”

IMPROVING STANDARDS

Some tech firms are even calling for standardisation, explaining we already have everything we need to drive 3D penetration.

“I think the technology exists now – the market doesn’t have to hold out for a glasses-free solution,” explains AMD product manager Shane Parfitt.

“The introduction of industry standards will be very important to establishing a greater ecosystem for 3D products. It will give consumers a lot more choice, as they’ll be able to buy from multiple vendors.

“It will also allow these firms to lower costs. We don’t believe the future is $200 glasses – we believe that barrier can be stripped down.”

Others claim that, while the major 3D supporters are doing great work, more are needed to drive the cause.
Mark Lamia, studio head at Call of Duty: Black Ops developer Treyarch, says: “A common challenge with new technology or entertainment is that it requires high quality execution by early adopters, companies who are willing to be on the forefront of development and take the risk of investing in something that is not yet widely established.”

GENIUS OR GIMMICKERY?

And of course, the ultimate question is this: is 3D home console gaming a fad, or is it really going to work this time? Opinion on the matter is divided to say the least.
“It would be naïve to say that 3D is a fad in gaming – there is huge investment from the major players,” Goss says.

Ingham believes it is “somewhere in-between”. He says: “3D will hit ‘evolution’ point when it begins to enhance gameplay. Until then, it will be a nice-to-have addition.”
Hocking adds: “We think 3D is definitely here to stay. If you look at the sheer number of new devices at this years CES – 3D laptops, tablets, phones, camcorders and cameras – it just shows how much investment is being made by many of the world’s major electronics manufacturers.”

Perhaps the initial performance of the 3DS will shed some light on whether or not consumers want the 3D technology that so many people are investing in.

With Nintendo driving 3D handhelds, Sony leading the charge on consoles and Microsoft waiting to see where the true potential lies, there’s still all to play for. All that the rest of us can do is watch, wait and keep those glasses close to hand.

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