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Depth Charges

3D display promises an exciting future, but the present is a little more sobering

No entertainment industry is quite so focused on technology as videogames are. Other media happily adopt new technologies in their production processes, of course, but from the consumer perspective they remain fairly stable, technologically.

Music switches media every decade or two, but remains broadly the same experience - the last really big innovation was probably stereo. Movies and television fiddle with distribution methods, but essentially continue to provide the same type of content - the switch to colour, and the more recent switch to HD, rank alongside surround sound as the big changes in the actual content. As for books, e-ink displays probably represent the only really important change in technology there since Gutenberg started racking out copies of the Bible.

Videogames are the ardent gadget fanboys of the bunch - the technophile, neophile medium, always keen to embrace everything new that comes along. Each generation of hardware changes the experience, altering not only the quality of the display but also what can be displayed. New control mechanisms radically upset preconceived notions of interactivity. The rise of broadband swings an essentially solitary form of entertainment into a massively social one.

It's a state of flux which is chaotic and blindingly fast compared to other forms of media - it's no wonder movie and TV people so often make a total mess of dipping their toe into the waters of videogames. Movie makers work on long schedules with confidence that their films will reach the same audience, with broadly the same expectations, in the same way as they did with the previous production. Successful game producers, on the other hand, must be experts in hitting a fast-moving target at a hundred paces.

The latest technological advance to create a huge stir in the games industry is 3D - more specifically, "real" 3D, display technology which creates an illusion of depth for the viewer. After various abortive experiments with utterly awful coloured 3D glasses, movie-makers abandoned 3D decades ago - but have recently returned to the idea, encouraged by the arrival of digital projectors in cinemas which can create far more convincing, vivid 3D effects.

Game producers, unsurprisingly, are intrigued, and several companies - British developer Blitz being perhaps the most notable - are presently showing off demonstrations of 3D game technology. Encouraging noises are being made. Insiders happily report being blown away by the demos. The future, it seems, is on its way.

There are a couple of problems, however, with the idea of 3D displays - not mortal problems, but certainly enough to ensure that this new wave of technology will remain a curiosity, rather than a mainstream prospect, for several years.

The most obvious problem is this. 3D works fairly well in your local cinema at the moment, but that's because your local cinema has quietly upgraded its projection technology (at enormous cost) in order to accommodate the new 3D movies. Cinemas made this investment because they know that this will provide them with a unique selling point in the coming years. The 3D experience they provide can't be replicated easily in the home. Most people won't be getting 3D off DVD or Blu-Ray, let alone off pirated downloads, which will drive people out to the cinema to watch movies instead.

This gamble on the part of the cinemas is based on the simple fact that the vast majority of current televisions - even very modern ones - simply aren't capable of displaying convincing 3D images, while the majority of media formats and players aren't capable of storing and rendering those images.

Three main branches of 3D technology are proposed for home usage. One of them involves a special screen which actually has two layers of display, each pointing in a slightly different direction and showing a slightly different picture. Sit in the right place in front of the screen, and you get a stereoscopic image - proper 3D. The downside is that no existing TV sets support this technology, and there are question marks over whether it'll ever work effectively with more than one or two viewers in the room.

The second approach copies the present cinema technology into a living room. The screen displays two stereoscopic images, with the light from each image being polarised. A cheap pair of viewing glasses (which look like normal lightly-tinted sunglasses rather than horrible red and green 3D glasses of old) then separates out the polarised light, so each eye sees the appropriate stereoscopic image. This technology works remarkably well in cinemas, and would be great in the home - however, it also requires a new screen technology which no homes possess as yet.

The final approach is the one favoured by game makers at present, and has actually been around for some time. It displays the image for the left eye, then the right eye, in quick succession on screen - while the glasses you wear close LCD "shutters" over your eyes so that each eye only sees the appropriate image. If this is done fast enough, the brain sees no flicker - just a continuous, steady 3D image.

The best thing about this final approach is that some televisions already exist which could, in theory, support it. No new display technology is required, but what you do need is a TV screen which can display twice the number of frames per second as a normal screen - since you now need one frame for each eye, where previously you had one frame for both eyes. You also need LCD glasses synched to the television's refresh rate for each viewer.

All of this lies in the realms of being moderately plausible. Many consumers won't upgrade their TVs again for a few years, having only just entered the HD era, but very high-end consumers will be willing to upgrade for 3D - and a handful of consumers already have somewhat 3D capable sets, without even knowing it (although this in itself is likely to be a source of huge confusion as the technology starts to roll out).

An even bigger problem, however, is content. Game consoles can output 3D signals to a television screen if required, certainly - in theory, if a standard for 3D display emerged today, the PS3 and Xbox 360 could support it by tomorrow. Blu-Ray players, DVD players and television receivers, however, are mostly stuck in the 2D era. Their standards aren't designed for 3D, and nor is the content they display. Where games could possibly make a bold leap into 3D, movies and TV are only equipped to take faint-hearted, faltering steps.

In some regards, this is an opportunity for games - but it is also a ball and chain around the ankle of the much-desired 3D revolution. Games will drive some uptake of the technology, but the leap into the third dimension won't really happen until the rest of the entertainment media is ready as well. For now, it's fantastic to see game companies laying the foundations of the future, but I don't expect to see 3D making a major impact on the wider market for several years. It's not a gimmick - but its time has not yet come.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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