Anybody who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last year has surely heard about the 3D revolution, which is sure to change the way you consume media for the rest of your lives. More and more movies are being produced in 3D, electronics manufacturers are already starting work on consumer-level 3D HDTV sets, and it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing 3D invading the gaming industry.

In fact, a few titles are already beginning to pop up in Japan, namely Metal Gear Arcade, which utilizes both special glasses as well as head-tracking technology for one of the most immersive and realistic 3D experiences.

Before we get into why gaming doesn’t need 3D, let’s first look at what it takes to make 3D work.

Your typical 3D display is going to be stereoscopic. This is the premise of almost all 3D we’re used to. Remember those red/cyan glasses you had as a kid? Those were used for anaglyphic displays, which allowed for a 2D image to be seen as 3D by the wearer. The way it works is that you have two images overlayed on top of each other, with a red and a cyan tint to them. Each image was taken from a slightly different angle, just like your eyes receive visual input from two angles. Your brain then allows you to focus your eyes on the picture and perceive a 3D effect.

The red/cyan glasses, however, had their flaws. Mainly, everything looked awful through them, and while 3D movies for them did work out with a good 3D effect, it had the misfortune of ruining the picture. Your brain can be easily tricked by two pieces of thin cellophane, but it’s not that dumb, and eventually tries to decode the colors of each eye and over time, the effect is ruined by your eyes refocusing on everything.

We’ve evolved beyond these cheap glasses and moved onto polarized lenses for 3D headgear. While more technologically advanced, they achieve pretty much the same goal than our old glasses did, which was by giving your eyes their own individual input, each from a different angle.

The polarized glasses that you get at the movies today, however, are way more advanced. By giving you clear lenses, you get a better picture (no more awkward color saturation) and your brain is a bit more comfortable with watching this type of picture, so there’s less refocusing of your eyes.

As you can see from this Samsung demo, the picture quality without glasses is awful. And chances are you’ll only have four pairs of the glasses that come with the TV, so no family 3D movie nights unless you shell out for more glasses.

The downside to today’s glasses is that they require significantly thicker plastic for the lenses, making the glasses heavier to wear. While it really isn’t a huge deal when watching a movie, I can imagine cumbersome glasses severely hindering your ability to play any fast-paced games if you’re the type to physically react to 3D imagery.

So, these two types of 3D are both different forms of stereoscopic display, which give your brain two images and lets it put them together and apply depth of field.

However, what about 3D that doesn’t require glasses? Nintendo’s on that, with a tech called autostereoscopy. Essentially, the display will produce both points of view at once.

While most of the details about the real technology behind Nintendo’s 3D display are still under lock and key, we can be sure of one thing: This type of technology can be quirky.

The 3DS’ display will more than likely be using technology similar to parallax barrier, which is what most of the 3D HDTVs you see these days are using. The premise behind this technology is very similar to the 3D stickers, bookmarks, and other cheap pieces of crap you’d get as a kid. You may remember what I’m talking about; those “toys” that had a picture on it that would change perspective if you tilted it to the left or right. They also made a high-pitched whine if you ran your fingernail across one. If you’ve ever had one, you’d recognize running your fingernail over these and should know exactly what I’m talking about.

Same premise, essentially, as parallax barrier. You have multiple views being presented to you from what appears to be a 2D surface, but is actually textured for multiple outputs.

This allows for a nice 3D effect, however has the flaw of a very limited effective viewing angle. You pretty much have to be facing the screen directly to get the full effect, which doesn’t bode well for party games (Rock Band in 3D is pretty much out of the question).

While parallax barrier has a limited viewing angle, this is pretty much a non-issue for handheld consoles like the Nintendo 3DS, since it’s not a console designed for multiple people to play on the same unit, or share the same screen. It’s a personal system, so this technology should be well-welcomed for this particular hardware.

So, when it comes to full console systems using 3D, we’re left pretty much with two choices: stereoscopic viewing via glasses, or parallax barrier 3D which will require specialized TVs and will limit multiplayer gaming (online gaming excluded, obviously).

But, there’s also a hidden, third choice for 3D, which doesn’t require glasses or special TVs whatsoever. This third choice is head-tracking software.

What head-tracking software enables is the ability for the game to edit the display according to your physical perspective. Johnny Lee does a better job explaining how head-tracking works in this video than what I’m capable of putting into words.

As you can see, this is old technology. This video was made in 2007, and the technology behind this has been available for years before this.

However, Johnny also points out another major flaw in this design, which is similar to one of the parallax barrier issues; viewing angles. While the player has the ultimate viewing angle, no matter where he’s standing (as long as he can see the TV), there is simply no in-house multiplayer aspect available. Not a technology designed for spectators.

Now, before, head-tracking was only a commercially viable solution in the gaming world because of the design of the Wii, where the controller has a sensor that can read the infrared light from your sensor bar. But new gaming innovations, such as the never-fails-to-amaze Microsoft Kinect, should also be more than capable of accurate head-tracking, allowing for a true 3D experience without having to buy any additional equipment (aside from buying the Kinect, in the first place).

SO! Now that we’ve discussed how 3D works, and how it has its own issues, let’s discuss why, or if, we need 3D at all.

My primary concern with introducing 3D into gaming is that the technology may not bring anything useful to the sport of gaming. I’ve seen how 3D can absolutely ruin a movie (Clash of the Titans (2010), anyone?) and how the fad can spread like a virus.

Look at the huge influx of 3D movies being released in the last few years. There’s TONS. How many of them really needed 3D? Few. How many of them had any significant improvement with 3D? Almost none.

The third dimension is a tough one to crack. So far, in my opinion, the film makers of today have not cracked it. Too often you’ll see the producers play with 3D. By “play with 3D”, I mean they make a gimmick out of it, by having things flying into your face when somebody sneezes, or throwing a yo-yo into the audience, and other stupid nonsense that does little more than distract you from an otherwise mediocre movie.

I’ll give James Cameron credit with Avatar, however. He didn’t play with 3D. He simply employed 3D. It wasn’t a gimmick, and while it didn’t necessarily add anything to the film, it felt right. It felt natural. It wasn’t something that I was actually focusing on at all during the movie whatsoever.

When 3D feels so natural that you begin to stop noticing it, this is when you know you’ve done 3D right. It’s for this exact reason that I don’t think the game producers of the world are ready for 3D. I have a bad feeling that they’re going to get too involved in pressing the 3D aspect of the game on you, and neglecting the actual game, itself.

3D is a very powerful toy, and I really don’t think the world is ready for it yet, nor will it ever be fully ready. The technology is well-developed for various styles of 3D imagery, but I don’t think that it will be taken seriously by many game developers.

However, I do have very high hopes for Kinect implementing 3D display via head-tracking. Right now, Kinect is in a lot of people’s homes already. The hardware has already been delivered to the consumer, and they don’t even know it. The developers don’t even know it. With some head-tracking, Kinect can easily become the winner of what I see as a potential upcoming “3D Wars”.

I do have hope for 3D in gaming, however. Right now, it’s a slow movement. Not a lot of games at all are implementing 3D. However, those that have seem to be doing a decent job with it so far.

Case in point, revolutionary indie game Minecraft has a built-in option to enable a 3D anaglyph mode that lets you play in your enormous sandbox world in 3D; all you need are the red/cyan glasses. It works well for Minecraft because there simply is no way to “abuse” the 3D aspect of the game. It takes what is already a crazily-immersive game and sucks you even further into it without diminishing the enjoyment you get from the game at all.

Minecraft is an excellent example of how 3D gaming should be. Don’t focus too hard on 3D while designing the game. If it’s entirely an afterthought after you’ve already constructed a fun game,  then so be it. You’ve already focused on the quality of the game and made it enjoyable. Then you make it better than it is. However, to start 3D, which I feel should be considered as an optional add-on to a game, is simply working backwards.

All this said, I’d really love to see 3D gaming work. I really want it to take off. We went from 2D sprites on your screen to “3D” polygons. We went from polygons to motion-controls. The next logical progression in gaming evolution appears to be going 3D, but I want to see it done right more than anything else. I think I speak for a lot of hardcore gamers when I say that I don’t care how realistic the 3D may be if the gameplay is lacking. We’ve seen what happens when you mix amazing technology with poor design. Let’s not let this happen with the third dimension.

One Response so far.

  1. blazelion says:

    3D glasses decreases the dynamic range (contrast capabilities) of a display, making LED TVs almost essential in order to not get “too dark” images. I think depth cues from HDR content is therefore much more useful than something like 3D, but perhaps that’s just me. 3D is nice for racing games though.

    Auto-stereoscopic 3D for the 3DS will likely work well because it’s a small screen and the player determines how to look at the screen. Being able to switch off the 3D entirely is a smart move on Nintendo too.

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