Chief technical officer of Blitz Andrew Oliver spent the first working week of the year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, investigating the latest in 3D technology in a year that is likely to prove pivotal to the 3D industry. With the billion dollar success of James Cameron's Avatar movie creating buzz at the same time, media reports fixed squarely on 3D as the technology to watch in 2010, after 2009 saw a reasonable interest in 3D for TV, film and games.
In this exclusive interview, Oliver offers his thoughts on the technology at the show, the hype and talking points amongst attendees, and why Sony could be central to the growth of 3D entertainment.
Q: What were you impressions of the 3D technology on show at CES this year?
Andrew Oliver: There were 110,000 people at CES, so if you think E3 is big this is something else. The first thing and the biggest things you saw entering the event was 3D TV banners from Samsung so you immediately got the gist that this year was about 3D. Samsung had the largest displays, LG, and then Panasonic and Sony. Every single company that I saw has a 3D TV as part of its range now. And they were all aware of how many they're producing, how many they want to get out.
Q: And was there much 3D gaming technology on display?
Andrew Oliver: The Sony stand was big with 3D games. They had an enormous stand with a theatre at one end and cinema projectors that are made by Sony, movie cameras made by Sony and they were showing Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – a Sony ImageWorks film – in 3D, they had a Blu-ray player playing 3D film and then the PlayStation 3's were showing various games. Gran Turismo 5 was in 3D and it looked very nice, Super Stardust 3D also looked impressive. They also had in booths videos of real gameplay – they weren't mocked up – of Wipeout, Motorstorm, LittleBigPlanet and Major League Baseball. They looked absolutely stunning.
Q: As with all new technology, there were issues with competing formats last year – has that been ironed out now, is the 3D industry singing from the same hymn sheet?
Andrew Oliver: It's all been cleared up and sorted out now. Everybody is going with HDMI 1.4. For the PlayStation it's just a way they format a picture inside but it does mean that existing Blu-ray players can't do it because you can't update them. A PS3 just requires a firmware update to enable 3D compatibility.
It was very interesting to see that plasma is still alive and kicking, LED TVs, OLED and LCD TVs – every single format I've seen in 3D, and they're all impressive. That makes me feel good that all technologies are capable of 3D. The other point is everybody is opting for Active 3D with shutter glasses and every manufacturer is producing its own glasses.
There's one input format and one standard of glasses that everyone is agreeing on. A year ago it was a mess and going off in all different directions and this year everyone has agreed on these standards. Pretty much everyone I asked has said that June is the turning point. It's the release for 3D in America, with 30 Blu-ray films out and every manufacturer will be selling at least one 3D TV in its range. ESPN is going 3D, the World Cup will be broadcast in 3D, the Discovery channel has announced a partnership with Sony and DirecTV have got a 24-hour full 3D channel coming.
Q: Sony is issuing two firmware updates, one to update the Blu-ray player to play 3D movies and the other for 3D gaming. Are you impressed with Sony's technology and the ease of use it's aiming for?
Andrew Oliver: Yes, it's brilliant. There's pluses and minuses to HDMI 1.4. In the old TVs that we've got, all these different chequerboard and interlaced formats are frankly a mess that became an extra process that slows everything down and reduced the resolution by half. The HDMI 1.4 standard allows you to send two pictures, two frame buffers every 60 frames a second and you can have that scaled and formatted in anyway you want. A Blu-ray movie look absolutely stunning running in 3D on the PlayStation because there's no loss of resolution.
In gaming you can pretty much set up any mode you like. With the typical 1280 x 720 format you can double that, and they've invented new modes. It's takes more video memory but it does mean you can get absolutely silky smooth gaming. Look at Gran Turismo and it looks really nice. It's clear that they've dropped resolution slightly. You can run Gran Turismo 5 in full HD or you can run it in 3D and when it's in 3D I think it's using 1280 x 720 but it's giving you a left and a right image at 60 frames per second. Theoretically it's a slightly lower resolution. But what they're doing is using their motion flow technology to up-scale and smooth out the picture.
Q: Do you think Sony can really help push the adoption and evolution of 3D gaming?
Andrew Oliver: 3D is an added thing and it hits every division that Sony has got. Sony is really pinning its hopes on the world wanting 3D and everybody is basking in the glory of Avatar.
Q: If you look beyond the Avatar movie and its sales at the cinema, and the hype of CES, was there still that buzz amongst the professionals that you were speaking to?
Andrew Oliver: Yes, everyone feels that they don't need to keep trying to convince people now, it's been done for us with Avatar. The TVs have got one good standard which is perfect and exactly what we want and what the film companies want. Every TV manufacturer is bringing out a 3D model and there's no talk of 'what if it gives you a headache'. Nobody is talking about the problems any more. If you can watch a three hour film you've passed the test. 3D isn't being done badly any more. You do it right and everyone loves it.
Q: You've being showing off your own Blitz 3D tech for a while now – have you see publisher and developer attitudes change since that process began?
Andrew Oliver: We've always had publishers very interested but there's always been the issue that to build worlds in 3D there is going to be a little more work. We've been telling publishers it's going to be 10-15 per cent extra work.. The other issues is that the people will say 'with the market place only having 1 per cent of 3D TVs what is the point?' Everyone has been very sceptical going forward. And the confusion of different formats has put people off. But CES will have changed everyone's perceptions. All HD TVs are going 3D, they do look stunning, they take it to another level. Now it's up to the creativity of game developers to use 3D well to make a more compelling immersive experience. Hopefully publishers can see that it's going to grow to more than 1 per cent of the market. If you go to buy a TV after the summer, any decent TV of a reasonable size will be 3D compatible and hopefully 3D Blu-ray movies will help that. Our games industry is full of first adopters. We don't want to target people behind the curve who pick up second hand games, we want to pick up early adopters who have got money and will go out and buy a 3D TV, a handful of 3D Blu-ray movies and now want some games – they're the ones with the money.
Q: And you've been getting positive feedback from the development community?
Andrew Oliver: I think it's opened a lot of eyes. We're continually getting thanks from people for pointing out that consoles can do 3D. When I've gone to 3D conferences in the past, all the talk was about 3D films. Having done a few talks, the TV companies are now talking about 3D games and films, and putting that in their own brochures. People can now understand the PlayStation and Xbox can do 3D. That's a general message. That's so different to conversations that took place six months to a year ago, when people doubted consoles could do 3D.
Q: Is Blitz working on any new 3D projects at the moment?
Andrew Oliver: Hopefully it will all start kicking off now. We have agreed a very big 3D deal which is very good for us. There are some people out there who really want to push 3D but I think when it comes to more general publishers CES and the Avatar film will have turned a lot of heads.
Q: What feedback did you get from consumers who have played Invincible Tiger in 3D?
Andrew Oliver: If you go on advocate sites for 3D there's lots of people saying it's really cool. But we don';t know how many people or what percentage were actually playing it in 3D. All we know is there's some very vocal consumers who spread the word that it looks very cool when you see it properly in 3D. I still wonder whether we should have put an Anaglyph mode in there so consumers could see it with coloured glasses. There were complaints about headaches but I think that's a bit naive. It's very difficult to say.
Q: What did you think the Ubisoft's Avatar game in 3D?
Andrew Oliver: It's very impressive that Ubisoft can render a jungle in 3D and that obviously looks really cool, but it suffered in frame rate. You really have to do things in 60 frames per second to get a 3D illusion. Because it's all about your brain seeing a left and right image and creating a 3D world, but the moment you drop frame rate to 30 or 20 it really ruins the illusions quite badly. While it's impressive, and I don't want to knock their assets, the frame rate dropped so badly but the illusion isn't quite there. It's impressive the sense of depth in the jungle, and I think it was a great achievement to create a proper boxed product. With Invincible Tiger the illusion works really well and is silky smooth. You want the best of both worlds really which is what Sony has managed to do. When you look at Gran Turismo, the full game in 3D, it's all coming together.
Andrew Oliver is chief technical officer of Blitz Games. Interview by Matt Martin.