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Does the industry need 3D?

Ben Parfitt
Does the industry need 3D?

3D has become something of a buzz word in recent months. With most of the biggest cinema releases now launching with 3D screenings, interest in the technology has inevitably risen within the games industry.

In the last year alone, we have seen the likes of Disney’s G-Force and Ubisoft’s James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game boast stereoscopic 3D modes.

Even as recently as last month, Nintendo hinted at the first details of its 3D-enabled new handheld, currently named the 3DS, and Square Enix released Batman: Arkham Asylum – Game of the Year Edition, which featured TriOviz 3D glasses.

There is even a 3D Gaming Summit, due to be held in Los Angeles from April 21st, exploring the impact the technology will have on our industry. Like it or not, 3D won’t be disappearing any time soon.

Of course, 3D gaming is nothing new. The technology has had a presence in the industry since the early days of the Vectrex, the Sega Scope 3D for Master System and the ill-fated Nintendo Virtual Boy.

So why has the industry now renewed its efforts to master the third dimension?

“As with film, 3D gaming just never took off, either because of consumer apathy, technical limitations or cost,” says Ubisoft’s senior brand manager Phil Brannelly.

“However, today these barriers have diminished and in the last few months, a cultural shift has occurred with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, where 70 per cent of its revenue was taken at 3D cinemas.”

Crucially, this shift is now spreading to TV, with the new Sky 3D channel launching in the autumn and 3DTVs going on general sale in the UK this spring. With public interest higher than ever, the time is ripe for the gaming to make its own impact on the 3D scene.

“It’s quite clear that stereoscopic 3D is shaping up to be a revolution across many areas,” says Simon Benson, senior development manager on Sony Computer Entertainment’s Stereoscopic 3D Team.

“Everywhere you look, there seems to be 3D technology and 3D content springing up – I’m starting to carry my own pair of 3D glasses every time I go to a trade show to save on queuing.”

Bob Dowling, founder and co-producer of the 3D Gaming Summit, adds: “3D has taken the gaming experience to a new level. Why? Because gaming can offer something movies cannot: the experience of physical, participatory involvement.

“3D is a new playground upon which developers can manifest their talent. It’s tremendously fertile territory with possibilities we can barely even contemplate. It is the catalyst for the next wave of creativity.”

Keen not to be left behind, a number of leading publishers are already working on 3D projects – but are doing so cautiously. With 3D yet to take off in the home, firms are taking care to ensure they have a strong offering before jumping on the bandwagon.

“I think a lot of publishers will dip their toes into the 3D space,” says Square Enix London Studios’ GM Lee Singleton. “It’s great to have Batman GOTY, one of the first 3D products out there – and we’re keeping close eye on how the technology develops.

“We’re really interested in games that are developed for 3D right from the start. If 3D can help to shape and enhance the whole gameplay experience, that will be the moment that 3D gaming really comes of age. Right now, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.”

Sega’s MD of European development Gary Dunn adds: “Sega is known for being involved at the launch of new technology, and 3D gaming is no exception. We’re looking at various projects to define what this technology means to our brands and exploring whether there is any potential to create something new using it.”

Naturally, larger corporations have the advantage in terms of resources and experience. Disney has already dabbled in 3D both on the screen and in its theme park attractions, while Sony has openly pledged its commitment to the technology. Both, unsurprisingly, have shared some of this investment with their gaming divisions, resulting releases such as 3D Wii title, Toy Story Mania.

“Disney Interactive Studios was an early pioneer of 3D in our family games,” says Matt Carroll, Disney Interactive Studios’ country director for UK & Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

“We felt that this added an additional element to the gameplay that our audience would enjoy and it would help immerse the player even further into the game. Looking forward, it is true to say that these are still early days and our expectation is that 3D can become a major enhancement to gameplay.”

Sony’s Benson adds: “Sony is the only corporation in the world that touches all parts of the 3D eco system. We make anything from 3D animated movies to the broadcast TV cameras that will soon be used to capture the FIFA World Cup in 3D.

“3D gaming is very important to us and we see this as a significant, long term strategy. The fact that we have a team entirely dedicated to stereoscopic 3D gaming shows that we are taking this seriously and aim to lead the way wherever we can.”

Even peripherals firms are getting involved, such as RealView Innovations. The company’s V-Screen and Deep Screen products create a pseudo-3D effect for any game, and the company is looking to develop these further.

“There’s no doubt that 3D will continue to grow in importance,” says RealView’s executive director Eamonn Ansbro. “There are many opportunities for various kinds of 3D technologies. Many viewers will want a good range of content, affordability, and viewing comfort over many hours. RealView has a head start in these respects.”

Of course, the key to 3D gaming taking off will be mastering the technology behind it. Developers must find a way to use 3D to enhance the gaming experience and rid the feature of its ‘gimmick’ status if it is to establish itself as the right direction for the industry.

“Once the initial novelty has worn off, 3D still provides enormous advantages to the gaming experience,” says Ian Bickerstaff, senior engineer on Sony’s Stereoscopic 3D team.

“We tend to break these down into three main areas – improved immersion, clarity and depth perception – and we’re working to develop each one.

“We’re getting there. I was trying a prototype 3D action game the other day and as I looked down from the top of a ladder, I actually experienced a brief feeling of vertigo – something that could never be experienced in a 2D game.”

Much like motion control, there are a variety of ways in which developers can create 3D visual effects (see ‘Finding the right angle’).

So far, games firms have followed the example of the film industry and opted for stereoscopic 3D, a technology that many have invested heavily in.

However, 3D Gaming Summit consultant John Gaudiosi warns that for 3D to really engage the public at home, the industry needs to find alternatives to the tech’s current dependency on specialised glasses.

“Most experts, Hollywood creatives, and game developers I’ve interviewed agree that 3D needs to lose the cumbersome glasses to truly bring the 3D experience into homes,” he says.

“With more games focusing on multiplayer experiences, owning multiple pairs of pricey glasses will not be an easy sell to the mainstream.”

Even if this barrier were to be overcome, he believes that 3D technology will always be hindered by the limitations of the gaming medium.

While our industry may strive to replicate the stunning effects of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and so on, it must always be aware of games’ boundaries.

“The only thing holding back gaming and 3D are the same limitations we see in CGI and Hollywood 3D,” says Gaudiosi. “Pixar has an endless amount of computer power and years of production to ensure that every frame looks the best it can be.

“But with current consoles, there are limits to both the development time allotted, the limitations of real-time rendering, and the power of the gaming platform. As a result, Avatar will always look better in film.”

So is 3D the be all and end all that some would have us believe?

It has certainly proven to be popular and lucrative with the media-consuming public; the opening weekend for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, for example, was the biggest 3D box office opening of all time.

And yet, games publishers are being careful not to alienate consumers.

While 3DTVs are due to arrive within months, widespread market penetration is not guaranteed and it’s important to continue creating games that can be enjoyed by the widest possible audience.

“With Avatar: The Game, you can enjoy the experience regardless of the TV you watch it on,” says Ubisoft’s Phil Brannelly. “We think of 3D as the ‘5.1 Surround Sound’ for gaming visuals. You can have the original gaming experience without it but it is definitely heightened with it.”

Square Enix’s Lee Singleton adds: “We are focusing our efforts on solutions that are more accessible to everyone. That’s the great thing about the TriOviz solution we’ve used in Batman GOTY – everyone can experience it in 3D on a normal TV.”

The most optimistic advocates of 3D gaming even believe that our industry could be just as crucial, if not more so, than that of film to increasing the saturation of 3D technology within the homes of the masses.

“The console space is the key to driving early adopters, and later mainstream consumers, to upgrade those HDTVs to 3D HDTVs,” says Gaudiosi. “And Nintendo’s latest announcement of the Nintendo 3DS portable, a new handheld utilising proprietary 3D technology that does not require glasses, could have a huge impact on the future of 3D.”

But for all the advances that have been made in 3D technology over the last few years, the days when all games and films will be presented in such a way are still a long way off.

While the industry may not need to incorporate such a feature into each of its products just yet, now is the time when 3D technology will be pioneered.

With more and more movies utilising 3D and the first signs of the technology enterting the home through 3DTVs and Sky’s 3D channel, it is clear that gaming will inevitably have to follow suit. It will be interesting to see who leads the way.

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COMPETING TECHNOLOGIES

There are a range of 3D technologies on the market at the moment. As the games industry continues to experiment with each one’s potential it will be interesting to see which, if any, will become the standard…

Stereoscopic Passive
The most common form of 3D, this is the same technology used in cinemas for the current wave of 3D films. The glasses required are cheaper, but compatible TVs will be more expensive.

Stereoscopic Active
Another popular choice for developers, this is the tech best known from nVidia’s GeForce 3D Vision cards. This requires more advanced and more expensive glasses – approximately £70 per pair.

Parallax Barrier
This works by applying a layer on top of an LCD screen that effectively feeds separate images to each eye. Reports suggest that this is Nintendo’s technology of choice for the 3DS.

Anaglyph
The traditional red and blue anaglyph glasses are slowly being phased out. TriOviz’s glasses, used for Batman GOTY, are a variation of the theory that offer less colour distortion.

Accelerometer-Based
A number of iPhone games such as Word Fu use the device’s accelerometer to detect what angle the phone is being tilted at, and then calculate what angle should be displayed in game.

Head Tracking
As seen in a DSiWare video that did the rounds when the 3DS was announced, this solution uses a camera to track the player’s head is and alter the perspective. Could Natal or Move use this technique?

V-Screen
RealView’s PSP peripheral that uses ‘Depth Enhancing Screen Technology’ to separate layers of the game and present any title in 3D. Deep Screen generates the same effect on monitors.

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