Gaming in stereoscopic 3D

Stereoscopic 3D is a great technology, even with all of the inherent flaws and glitches that exist in today's implementations.  But while movies are the main way most people are finding out about three dimensional viewing, in reality, gaming is a much more interesting way to take advantage of 3D viewing.  Here's why.

Gaming requires more immersion and focus

Today, the requirement to sit in front of the TV and wear glasses inherently limits the number of viewers and the freedom of the viewer to go do other things.  Not great, especially when you're walking around the room doing other things or watching with other people.

However, most gaming is done in a single player or solitary context.  In this sense, it requires focused attention from the gamer anyway.  Therefore, you aren't really losing much by asking the gamer to put on some glasses or sit directly in front of the TV … he's already doing it.  In return, the 3D presentation of the game makes the game more immersive and engaging.  Gaming is a much more natural place to take advantage of stereoscopic 3D because the viewer has already decided to dedicate his attention and focus to begin with.

3D environments in games are presented in real time

Because 3D viewing is in a transitionary period, many movies are shot with a relatively shallow depth.  For an experienced viewer, this is unfortunate … it is not difficult for them at all to see scenes presented in a deeper and more realistic manner.  Unfortunately, it is impossible for the filmmaker to go back and reshoot those scenes with more depth … the movie is fixed at its current depth forever.

Gaming is different.  First, on a technical basis, you can adjust the depth of any 3D scene to something that you, the viewer, are comfortable with handling.  This is much better than having to use the lowest common denominator that is generally given to you by a filmmaker.

More importantly, games can represent fantastic huge realities in 3D that could never be explored interactively within a movie.  I will state without any doubt that you really can't appreciate the artistry of how someone has designed an entire city within a game until you experience actually standing within and moving around it in stereoscopic 3D.

To put this another way … the sense of perception is greatly enhanced when viewing a movie in 3D.  The sense of exploration … the feeling of moving within something new … is greatly enhanced when playing a game in 3D.

3D gaming is often still glitchy

The nice thing about games today is that nearly all of them are rendered using three dimensional data.  In other words, the computer is already storing the scene you are viewing in 3D anyway … it's just presenting a 2D scene to you on your monitor.  To get to stereoscopic 3D, it's almost trivial to just render the scene twice as often (once for each eye) to create the illusion of depth for the 3D gamer.

Where this falls down is that most existing games assume you are viewing them using a standard 2D monitor.  What often happens is that special effects such as lights or menus are presented, using 2D programming "tricks",  in such a way as to look fine on a 2D screen but be seen at completely wrong or impossible depths in a 3D context.

Technologies such as nVidia 3D Vision take advantage of the fact that games are already 3D anyway to retrofit many past games for 3D gaming, but the aforementioned glitches are where the promise falls short of the reality.

Fortunately, as 3D gaming becomes more commonplace, you can expect developers to see the glitches during development and fix them on the spot.  Companies such as nVidia and Sony have a vested interest in making new games look good in 3D and are spending a lot of money evangelizing proper 3D programming techniques with developers.  Moving forward, these problems are likely to disappear quickly in newly released games.  But it's very difficult to go back and fix problems with older games.

Gaming in 3D can make you perform better … or worse

While gaming in stereoscopic 3D adds realism, that doesn't necessarily translate to better competitive performance.

First, your framerates will be significantly lower unless your system is overbuilt with enough performance slack to compensate.  A lower framerate can translate into poorer competitive performance.

Second, it takes time for your eyes to change their focus depth.  That split second can be precious when switching between a close by target to a far away one … something that you would artificially not have to deal with when playing in 2D.

Third, some games don't lend themselves perfectly to control schemes when viewed in 3D.  RTS's are an example where the cursor must float in 3D and adjust its selection dynamically.  It can feel unintuitive to select and move objects in these gaming contexts.

In short … there are not many cases where depth perception will enhance your performance in games as a player (although there are a few).  Depth perception is valuable only in very particular gaming contexts.  Think of it more as a way to add enjoyment or immersion, not a way to add extra wins to your scorecard.

Just so I don't leave this on a downer note, there have been two cases where I have found depth perception to be valuable.

The first is in Mirror's Edge, where you run across rooftops and must land precisely and often hit a button to roll as you land.  The depth perception added here by stereoscopic 3D helps significantly in judging in a split second how close you are to landing and where you are.

The second is any racing game (cars).  Depth perception helps you gauge the nature of turns quickly at high speed and also how close you are to touching other cars.

RTS's look OK, but are less impressive than other 3D games due to the fact that your view tends to be from a bird's eye perspective.  In my experience, UI selection of units can be glitchy, so best performance is achieved by playing in 2D.

First person shooter games are probably the best way to showcase any 3D setup … the immersiveness is amazing.  With a sufficiently high performing system, the difference in your performance will probably minimal until you get to high levels of play, but I do expect the disparity to become signficant at those levels.

Of course, any low pressure game like puzzle or adventure games will have no problems at all being played in 3D.

Summary

In short, I find gaming to be a far more fertile ground for stereoscopic 3D than movies … mostly due to the added immersion and interactivity.  I hope you agree.

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