Thursday, 16th April 2009 at 11:17 am
As Hollywood begins to invest itself heavily in 3D, everyone is talking about its potential in developing games. Is this a genuine vision for our industry? Or is it a mirage?
Stereoscopic 3D is a hugely misunderstood thing. One the one hand, the TV manufacturers’ PR and marketing juggernauts are getting louder and bigger. We’re told that ‘3D’ is the future of entertainment; that it will revolutionise the way we’ll view content and open our eyes to wide new worlds. One nameless daily free London paper even went as far as to say that soon we’ll have ‘characters and effects literally leaping out of the screen’ at us. Impressive stuff.
Take a look at any of the internet’s various forums, however, and people are slightly more cynical – perhaps fairly, due to the understandable security concerns that could result from Nico Bellic bursting out of your TV. And in a more realistic sense, at the doubt of having to wear glasses while playing games or watching films. Plus, with many consumers having just spent hundreds of pounds on a new HDTV after being told that was the only true way to experience games, now the boundaries are being shifted once more?
Speak to anyone involved with the 3D world and they’ll admit that there are obstacles to be overcome before the technology can be as ubiquitous as they’re predicting – but the message is clear; that they will be overcome is inevitable.
One of the few companies already making headway into the stereoscopic 3D space is Blitz, who’ve gone as far as to include support in their BlitzTech middleware.
Andrew Oliver, Blitz’s chief technology officer and the spearhead behind the move into that extra dimension, admits that the situation right now isn’t brilliant.
“It’s not a question of if it’ll catch on, but when. The current situation is that hardly anyone’s buying 3D TVs, so they’re very expensive because they’re essentially prototypes,” he tells us. “As soon as it goes into mass-production – and Sony has announced that it’s bringing the polarising technology to the Bravia range, and it won’t be that much more money – then 3D will start to take off.”
The other problem is one of content – even if you do have a 3D set, and many people do without even knowing it, there’s nothing with which to show it off, keeping it a feature that many manufacturers are reticent to shout about.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation at the moment,” says Oliver. “If a shopkeeper says ‘this TV can do 3D’ then the consumer will want that proved, but there’s no content to show it off. But those TVs do have 3D – Samsung and Mitsubishi are selling them but keeping quiet about it. So in a sense, what we’re doing is kind of a call to arms. We can say that we’re accelerating the process, because it’s in our technology and we’re licensing that out, and it’s already working on consoles.”
So, that’s the ‘when’ – or, perhaps more realistically, the ‘if’ – covered. What about the ‘why’? Why would a company that has made its fortune on licensed games for US publishers spend all that time and effort making its proprietary technology capable of displaying 3D images?
The genesis of the decision was Oliver’s visit to SIGGRAPH last year, which focused on how the movie industry was going 3D.
“Epic was there, and Mark Rein gave a demonstration of Unreal Tournament 3 in 3D on a really high-spec PC. After the display, someone asked him when we’d see Gears of War in 3D, and his response – that neither the Xbox 360 or PS3 were powerful enough to run a 3D display – stuck with me slightly.
“I thought: ‘Why can’t they do it?’ After all, these systems are engineered for graphics, and they’ve really got some power – how hard can it be?” He smiles: “It turns out that it’s a lot bloody harder than we thought.”
The motivation was that Oliver wanted to show that the technology could be put into a real game, not just a technology demo. But there are some issues to overcome; issues that make Rein’s statement somewhat true. Firstly, the 3D ‘standard’ that exists – more about that later – specifies that the image has to be 1080p. Secondly, unless you want the image to look stuttery, you need to be hitting 60 frames per second. Given that games like Gears of War are getting 30fps at 720p, that’s more than a tall order. And it gets worse: the TV needs to display two images per frame – one for each eye – essentially doubling that again.
“Now I understand why Mark Rein said it was impossible to do – because it’s hard. How many games are there that run in 1080p and at 60 frames per second, and then are comfortable with essentially doubling that? Still, on the other hand, it’s really pushed our tech. It’s about getting the engine running really fast –we’ve had to push it to get faster and faster and faster to get the bloody thing just working.”
But while Blitz can make the tech work now – we’re treated to a proof-of-concept based on one of the upcoming titles from its Arcade division, and the effect is certainly impressive – is there anyone else that’s going to want to put the effort in?
Beyond the current scarcity of 3D TVs, the one thing that’s scaring a lot of developers – including ones that told us they were experimenting in this area themselves – is the lack of a unified standard. Currently, the way a Samsung 3D set operates is different to a Sony TV. Blitz’s way around this is to write different drivers depending on the TV type, but admits that this isn’t optimal and would require testing on a huge number of different TVs.
So, while companies like Sony may be showing their intention with displays at events like CES, the actual reality is that 3D gaming is still a while off – even to the early adopters – and most likely won’t see significant support on this console generation.
But with a ratified standard, a bigger install-base and next-gen systems designed with it in mind – which, with Hollywood proclaiming 3D as the ‘future’, isn’t unlikely – we’ll all be enjoying that extra dimension. So long as you’re okay with dangerous objects ‘flying out’ of your TV, that is.
3D GLASSES: A COMPLETE GUIDE
1. RED & CYAN (ANAGLYPH) GLASSES
These are the type of glasses that have been around for over 50 years. The two images are given filters to make one red and one cyan, with the coloured lenses effectively blocking out its own colour to deliver different images to the eyes. Traditional sets made from paper often suffer from focus issues, and the colourisation of the images naturally effects the palette of the image, with greyscale images being most effective. However, this technique has been used as recently as last year, with Disney’s Hannah Montana 3D concert being screened using this technique.
2. IMAX 3D / LINEAR POLARISATION
These separate the two images by polarising some of the light horizontally and some of it vertically, with each lens only accepting one type. This works, but you have to keep your head still, because otherwise the lenses are at an angle and the effect doesn’t work. For that reason, most IMAX or theme park 3D attractions are kept short, because otherwise people start to relax and move their heads – at which point it goes out of focus. They work well for what they are, but would never work for a whole film or game.
3. REAL-D / CIRCULAR POLARISATION
If you go and see Bolt or any of the other upcoming 3D films, you pay a pound extra for a pair of these glasses, but get to keep them for the future. Devised by a group which broke away from IMAX, realising that a digital format was necessary, they created glasses that polarise light circularly. It projects the image with the light spiralling clockwise and anti-clockwise, again with each lens only accepting one type, thus delivering the two images to the respective eyes. The circular nature means that the angle of the viewer’s head is not an issue, making it suitable for feature films and games. The low cost of the glasses means that they don’t have to be reused and cleaned by cinemas.
4. LCD SHUTTER
One of the other systems to find itself with an increasingly prevalent usage on current sets, LCD shutter glasses have lenses filled with liquid crystal that are normally transparent but can be made opaque when a voltage is passed through. As such, the set alternately darkens each lens in synchronisation with the TV’s refresh rate, meaning each eye sees a different picture. However in order to make this work, the TV has to be running at 120hz – twice the standard refresh rate – otherwise visible frame-rate issues can be observed.
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