Sony's 3D re-vision

Sony's 3D re-vision

By Rob Crossley

July 18th 2011 at 2:00PM

Ahead of his Develop Conference keynote, Mick Hocking explains lessons learnt from launching 3D on PlayStation

Last year when Develop met with Sony’s Mick Hocking there was a striking sense of optimism about 3D and what it could add to the PlayStation format.

Today the fireworks have fizzled a little. Independent research warns that public interest in 3D films has plateaued, while the Nintendo 3DS has sold well but clearly not enough to silence sceptics.

Is Sony still fully backing 3D gaming? To answer that question Develop once again met with Hocking, the man who has spearheaded the 3D games enterprise from within Sony’s own studios.

Today Hocking is busier than ever with an increasingly senior position at Sony Computer Entertainment. He’s now managing Sony London Studios as well as the renowned North West division, while also helping with an academic program that runs right across Europe, on top of training up ‘3D game evangelists’ in-house.

And if that wasn’t enough to make his diary look impossible, he’s also put together a 3D post-mortem speech for the Develop Conference, held this week in Brighton. The keynote will discuss lessons Sony has learnt from 3D gaming in the past year, so consider our interview below a preview of what to expect.

It’s been a year since we last spoke about 3D game technology – what’s changed since?
I think the main lesson I’ve learnt is there’s an on-going need for developers to still be properly educated about developing games in 3D.

We’ve invested a lot in 3D technology and also getting everyone up to speed about how it works, and how to get the most out of it. We still spend a lot of time getting the message out there to new teams to create high-quality 3D.

So what I’ve learnt the most is how important that message is, about getting the word out there. If teams get educated about how to produce great quality 3D then we will see more great 3D games.

Internally too we've already done a lot of work in training up our QA teams so that they can spot 3D bugs during the testing phase. But we also have our dedicated 3D team that are always available to help our PlayStation 3 developers both technically and creatively when they are implementing 3D in their games. We’ve actually now got a guide with 10 points for producing technically correct 3D, it’s our 3D 10 Commandments if you like, and we also have lots of resources now to help developers creatively with 3D as well.

I take it you’re referring to how testers are looking for errors in 3D despite being new to the tech themselves.
Absolutely, they are trained in how to spot 3D errors and how to feed this back to the development team, but the message about 3D has to cover every discipline.

The first part of our work was getting internal developers on board with 3D, and they sort of become evangelists internally to explain the great potential of the tech. Our internal 3D team also goes out to our external studios and publishing partners to spread the message further.

I imagine you have create your own new language You can’t have a QA process where all the feedback is “fuzzy” or “made me dizzy”.
Absolutely, we have to formalise the 3D vocabulary, really we need to develop a common language sp we can all talk about 3D in the same way – its best features and its biggest problems.

That’s actually a problem that’s spread right through to national media. [UK newspaper] The Sun ran a story a few months back that claimed Nintendo’s 3DS made people dizzy. The problem was that the tech can leave a strange affect on its users, but “dizzy” is a misleading description for it.
Well the main point is that if 3D is done correctly and delivered well by the display device then it is comfortable to watch. But if it isn't implemented correctly then it can cause effects that make it uncomfortable.

There are many things that can be done wrong in 3D, some of them obvious and some of them quite subtle, and its really important for the developers to understand all of these issues when implementing 3D so that they can produce a really good 3D game.

When using auto-stereoscopic screens they typically have a sweet spot where the viewer needs to be to get the right 3D effect, if the user moves their head relative to the screen too much then this can make viewing the 3D difficult.

The poor language on 3D is one of the reasons why it’s essential that the 3D tech is done right and developers only deliver great quality 3D games.

Since we last spoke Nintendo has released its own 3D console into the market. Even Nintendo has said it’s disappointed with post-launch sell-through, and this all does raise questions on whether 3D is a commercially viable format.
This is of course a key question for us, but we are very pleased with the first year of 3D on PlayStation 3. It is true that because of the history of 3D – its rise and fall in two eras before – that of course some people have been looking at the latest surge with scepticism and asking whether 3D will be around for the long term. We think it that 3D will definitely be around for the long term.

If you look at the market, last year 3D had the wow factor, it had the novelty and the big impression. There was a huge amount of interest in it and much media hype. This year is about the proliferation, because there are now so many 3D-capable devices coming onto the market.

At CES this year we saw 3D Laptops, 3D Bloggies, 3D phones, 3D Camcorders, 3D tablets and a whole host of new 3D screens. Also what we’re seeing is a growing number of devices that can capture 3D content, and people are becoming more accustomed to the tech by using 3D cameras.

Many people will be creating their own 3D content this year and sharing with their friends and this will prove to be another powerful driver for the 3D market.

But the rule remains and it’s just as critical as ever: High quality 3D is something that will promote the tech and enhance entertainment. 3D done wrong will only put people off.

Are you disappointed with the last year of 3D developments?
No I think we are very pleased with our first year of 3D on PlayStation 3. We've developed more 3D games than we first thought we could, and we've kept the quality very high on PlayStation 3.

How many PS3s are playing 3D games?
I don’t know exactly what the figures are today, we now have about 50 Million 3D enabled PlayStation 3's out there and in the first year alone we’ve managed to deliver over 50 3D games. I think it’s more about us having a good library of high-quality 3D titles out on the market, and strong support from third parties, so anyone investing in a 3D TV knows that they have a lot of great 3D content to play with on PlayStation 3.

The size of our 3D games market is of course a function of the size of the 3D TV market. I think the figure in the UK is that about 2.5 per cent of HDTVs in the UK are now 3D, and data suggests that by 2015 nearly 40% of all new TVs sold will be 3D.

The price of 3D TVs is falling all the time so we expect to see a strong and steady growth of the 3D market.

Sony’s not going to be saying how many PS3s are running 3D because the number is going to be low, surely.
Not at all, as I said we now have 50 Million 3D enabled PS3's out there that support not only 3D games, but 3D Blu-Ray, 3D MP4's and also 3D Photos. In the first year I think we've made good progress as expected. 3D is a long-term strategy, and 3D is going to grow steadily.

Our job is to educate that high quality content is the only way 3D can prosper, and this along with the benefits that 3D can bring to games are our main messages.

Have you played Ridge Racer on the 3DS?
No, no I haven’t.

Well the 3D effects in it are poor. Surely the problem with spreading the word about good 3D is that there’s so much bad 3D out there too?
I can't comment on 3D games on other platforms but in general it’s really important for the games industry to deliver high-quality 3D content.

Part of the solution is to educate developers in how to produce great quality 3D. For us the best quality 3D games experience is on 3D HD TVs at this time. If 3D is delivered well then it will provide a great experience for our games fans. If you look at Motorstorm Apocalypse, Killzone 3 or the new games like Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One, or Uncharted 3 in 3D you will see how much 3D can add to the gaming experience.

Sony is prioritising big-screen high-quality 3D over the convenience of glasses-free tech, I take it?
For the living room the best way to enjoy high quality 3D games is on a 3D HDTV and PlayStation 3. Our mission is about delivering the highest quality experience.

While there are a number of glasses-free displays for 3D, all of them display the same limitations in viewing angle, viewing position. Its a hard problem to solve, so if you want the best 3DHD experience then you’ll need a 3D Bravia with active shutter glasses.

Is Sony at all interested in autostereoscopic 3D?
We have some great autostereoscopic screens already, but mainly in devices like our new 3D Camcorder. Here the 3D screen works well as you typically keep the camera steady when filming and therefore you head position doesn't change much relative to the 3D screen. It is still thought by many in the TV display industry that good quality and limitation-free large screen auto-stereoscopic displays are some years away yet.

Is the PS Vita a good candidate for 3D?
As you know our purpose at Sony is to build the world’s most awesome handheld games machine, and I think the focus – right now at least – is to build the most capable handheld games machine on the market.

Of course in the future we may look to build the 3D experience on a handheld. The tech is rapidly evolving, so we may well in the future include a high-quality 3D experience on the small screens. Whether this comes to Vita will have to be seen.

Sony must be pleased with the reception to the PS Vita. It’s been near-unanimously positive.
Yeah we were absolutely delighted. The handheld market has become so competitive now, and it’s a very different world since we launched the first PSP.

We thought very long and hard internally about what sort of device we wanted to create, and I think it was very important to deliver such a capable device, and go dual-analogue. I think it’s gone down really well because it’s differentiated itself from the competition out there.

Last November you said there were over 50 PS3 projects that were utilising 3D. Are there more in production today?
Yes last year I told you there were about 30 internally and about the same amount from external studios, there are more than that now in total, and of course we now have about 50 on the market.

If any of our readers are interested in building PS3 3D games at their studio, what would your advice be?
Firstly, get a big Sony Bravia 3D TV and some quality PlayStation 3 games that can show of the tech really well.

That will show you the best 3D gaming has to offer. Then get in touch with us. We’ve got a dedicated team to help you, loads of materials and support available in helping you create the best 3D possible in your game. We also can come to your studio and help out too.

For the benefit of our readers, is that just UK and European studios that are eligible?
No, it’s any studio in the world who wants to make 3D games on PlayStation 3.

Clearly 3D is evolving rapidly. Are there any new technologies that Sony is interested in?
Yeah absolutely. One of the cool things we’ve just announced is our new PlayStation monitor, this is not only a great HD, 2D and 3D monitor, but it also supports a unique feature that lets two players play head-to-head gaming, full-screen on the same screen without each other seeing the others screen.

This is going to be great feature that many developers are really excited about.

We've also got a new head mounted display that we showed at CES, that can produce really great quality 3D and a very immersive experience for games. The head-mounted display has twin-OLED screens; very high quality.

At the moment it’s just a head-mounted display; the head isn’t being tracked – but that’s something we’re doing R&D on. I have to say, what we’ve done in the R&D projects has just been fantastic.

We’re working with a couple of games at Sony that are experimenting with virtual reality type experiences.

Are you saying virtual reality is coming back?
Yeah it could be, it certainly seems possible, and these head-mounted displays incorporate 3D tech. It’s very, very cool. And obviously it’s a fantastic way to experience 3D because both images are being directly fed into each eye.