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All About 3D - Part Two

Andrew Oliver discusses the problems of selling the 3DTV format and the need for standardisation in the industry

In the first part of our interview with Andrew Oliver, the chief technical officer of Blitz discussed in detail the costs and challenges of developing internal 3D technology.

In this second part published today, Oliver explains the problems of competing 3DTV formats and the need for standardisation, and how the shift into 3D should be able to help create more emotionally engaging games.

Q: Do you think it's easier to sell the 3D experience to gamers? It strikes me that the general public is beginning to get fed up with the increasing rate of change in technology and the pressure to trade up.

Andrew Oliver: I definitely think so. For the next few years, as it comes in, we've all got to be wearing glasses, and that's a fundamental blocker to an awful lot of people. I would say that these [current] glasses are rubbish, and I've seen newer, better glasses - once it gets to mass market the glasses will look pretty swish, there's no worries there.

But two of the TV manufacturers I've talked to - actually three - have prototypes of TVs that don't need glasses. At the moment they're experimental, they have problems, but that's the next way... but that's five years down the line. The visual quality just isn't quite there yet, how you get the image through the TV.

So there'll be another wave - but the fact is, the electronics industry is driven by change. Not quite as extreme as the mobile phone, where there's a new handset per person every year, but for the TV it's about every five years - it's almost in line with consoles, frankly.

Q: But the reason why phone technology is acceptable is because most people get them on contracts and perceive they're not really paying for it... A TV is a bit different, especially if you just got a new HDTV a couple of years ago.

Andrew Oliver: Well, you don't have to upgrade, it's a choice. You might be happy with the TV you've got.

Q: In the current economic climate, do you feel it's maybe wiser to hold off on trying to sell to the mainstream?

Andrew Oliver: I think it'll be slower than expected, and I think that cinemas, certainly a couple of years ago, were all pretty gung-ho about making 3D movies. A few kicked off a few years ago, but then the cinemas wouldn't go to the new digital projectors that were needed because of the economic downturn. So that's caused the cinemas to have a very slow uptake because they don't want to spend all the money out - and a lot of buying digital projectors, which are about GBP 80,000, is about going to the bank for financing, telling them 3D movies are coming... The banks aren't so sure about lending money now, and they'll say "Who's to say this 3D stuff is going to happen anyway?"

So because everybody's been a bit slow, Hollywood's also been a bit slow to make them - it's slowed everything down, but it's gotten to a point where it's going to happen.

HDTVs took off significantly faster because they were flat - flat screens came in at the same time. If you have a 32" tube TV and somebody asks you if you want to buy an HD tube... it's still a big, bulky tube, and nobody would have bothered. People 'get' flat.

But I'd argue that, apart from flat, going to standard definition to HD is a smaller change than from HD to 3D - if you show the layman on the street a flat panel with SD and HD, most people aren't going to know the difference. Although there's a slight complication in that some screens have upscaling... anyway, assuming it doesn't. But you see 3D and you say "Bloody Hell" - it's sci-fi stuff, what we all imagined years ago.

Q: The point you make there... there are different grades of HD, different standards with upscaling, 1080p, and so on. Will that happen with 3D?

Andrew Oliver: To be perfectly honest, it's actually worse. There are lots of fights about the standards, there are so many ways of doing it. In some ways I feel good about the fact that whether it be a DLP, a plasma, an LED, an OLED... they've all got ways to be 3D - but they're different and give you slightly different experiences.

But they can build it in on all of those technologies - it would be a bugger if you could only do 3D on plasmas, when they're going a bit out of fashion...

Q: So does how do you account for all those settings?

Andrew Oliver: The hardware gives you a slightly different experience on things like the brightness of the picture, there are some things to do with ghosting and things like that - so you have to be aware of that, but then each TV manufacturer has different ways they believe is best to send a 3D picture through to the TV.

The fact is, you have to send a left and right picture through, so how do you do that? Well, you could just alternate the frames - one for each side - but if you do that on a normal console or DVD player, they all run at 60Hz (although PAL is 50Hz). That means you're flicking each image at 30 frames per second and 3D doesn't work very well at that speed - the illusion starts to break down a little bit.

So they had to get a left and right frame at 60 frames per second. Some people in the projector world have just upgraded the equipment to supply left and right alternating images at 120Hz - which is great. So you can get projectors out there that will run 3D movies, via PCs with hardware cards, that can do 120Hz. They've minimalised the market, and frankly your Blu-rays, Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s run at 60Hz... so currently we can't run on those projectors.

Having said that, I've talked to a couple of manufacturers and they're looking at this, because they've seen a pretty big market for being able to do 3D via console, particularly since they can run movies. They realise maybe they shouldn't have gone down that route. So that's one mistake that's been made.

So then - if you've got to do left and right images at 60Hz, how do you interleave it? You could split the screen into left and right halves, or you could interlace it every other line... there are about six different methods, and TV manufacturers have come down on different ones which is a bit of a pain. It means we have to write a software driver underneath the hood to convert it to the different formats.

Apart from being a pain (because you have to buy the different TVs and make sure they all work and spend a few days on each one) it's one extra process. We're talking 1080p resolution, so you have to shuffle that amount of memory just before you're about to put it through the TV - it's one last pass across a very large lump of memory, which we could have done without.

Q: Will that confusion settle down as it becomes more popular?

Andrew Oliver: The problem is, they've already been selling the TVs, and there are already TVs out there that we want to support. In America they've sold over 2 million 3DTVs - they are selling, and you can buy them here if you know what you're looking for. And they're different formats.

The one thing we're conscious of is that we're going out with a game and the last thing we want people to do is not feel burned by buying our game, and finding it doesn't work. We've gone to great lengths to make sure we support everything, and we've proven we can do it - but I feel that's exactly what everyone else is going to have to do.

So when they work out the format for playing movies... we'd like to be able to just put it out on a format that covers 80 per cent of the market, but then you'll have 20 per cent of people who bought expensive TVs only to find the game doesn't work. That will cause backlash.

Q: Will it aid the storytelling aspect of games?

Andrew Oliver: That's next year's mission... every year we have something we'll be pushing on, and next year it's emotion. There's a lot of emotion in Dead to Rights, but I think it's the one thing the games industry has really lacked. It's really easy to make shooters where you don't care about who you're blowing away - it's the sensitive emotions that are hard.

Q: Will it be a turning point for games socially when they crack the sensitive emotions?

Andrew Oliver: I think it'll be a massive, massive turning point. I always look back - one of the films I most respect is Snow White, because it was the first film in colour, but it was bold, brash and extremely brave. If you think about the fact that they painted every bloody cell... back in those days, they must have been mad. All they'd done was Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and then they decided to make this huge movie, the first one in colour...

But even within the film, there are so many new techniques that they pushed into it - but the one biggest thing is that it was hand-drawn cell animation that made people laugh and cry. We haven't done that in videogames yet, and look at all the tech and tools we've got.

They're doing in the movies with the same tools - the CG movies - they get away with it in those, they're doing emotions. It just seems to be something the games industry doesn't do. I think it's the saddest thing, but that'll be next year's thing for us.

You talk to publishers and everybody likes the idea of a game that's more emotional, so you ask for 10 per cent extra to really spend a lot of time on that aspect... they ask what we're going to do and how, to which we respond that we've got ideas, but in the end we do things on our own.

I'd like to think that Dead to Rights is fairly good on the emotional rollercoaster stuff, and you've yet to see the storyline, but it's got 72 minutes of cutscenes. I don't like just putting things generally into cutscenes, but a lot of it is actually within the game environment, and there's a helluva strong story to that.

We've felt that it's more of the way we should go, but you have to build it more into the game.

Q: Building in choices and consequences is important...

Andrew Oliver: And it's hugely challenging, but it's not impossible.

Andrew Oliver is CTO at Blitz Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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