January 12, 2009 Today's 3D games are already programmed to take depth of field into account as part of their game world graphics rendering. Your graphics card already knows exactly how far away the objects it's crunching are. So it's really only display and driver restraints that have prevented us from seeing our existing 3D games in a truly immersive stereoscopic 3D format. Vegas CES 2009 has shown us some extremely promising, and already affordable, stereoscopic 3D display technologies that work with the majority of recent release 3D games and take a big step forward towards the ultimate goal of virtual reality home gaming. We'll take a look at NVIDIA's 3D Vision system and iZ3D's stereoscopic monitors, which approach the task from different angles and give us a glimpse of what we can expect when 3D technologies flood the mainstream in years to come.
Home gaming has been taking very small and manageable steps towards an immersive virtual reality future; Nintendo's Wii games console, for example, is arguably the first mass-market games system that gets players up off their butts and re-invents the controller as far more than a handset with buttons. With the Wiimote and nunchuk recording the position, acceleration and even orientation of a player's hands, the Wii can make gaming a much more physical experience.
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With such a control system hitting the market and meeting unparalelled sales success, and surround sound already well integrated into high-end gaming, the missing link in the bridge to true virtual reality home gaming is still the display technology. To really put yourself in the picture, you need stereoscopic 3D vision - and it seems a wave of advancements in this area are about to begin hitting the mainstream.
Since 3D game rendering systems already 'know' depth distance information on each object they present, both of the following systems are able to work instantly with the majority of DirectX 10 video games that are already on the market.
NVIDIA's GeForce 3D Vision system is comprised of a set of drivers, a wireless transmitter and a pair of active shutter glasses. It works with any monitor that is able to operate at 120Hz. Effectively, the monitor displays the right-eye and left-eye views in alternating frames, and the transmitter wirelessly synchronises frame-rate information with the glasses. The glasses have two LCD lenses, which basically go black every other frame, so that at fast refresh rates the stereo vision effect appears.
The system is available now for a retail price of US$199 - although you may need to upgrade your monitor to one that can handle the fast 120Hz refresh rate required - which will push the price up several hundred dollars. The drawback to an active shutter system like this is that the in-game frame rate is halved for each eye - so that games that run at anything but very high original frame rates tend to look a bit clunky. This probably works in NVIDIA's favour, as it may well help them sell more high-end graphics cards to produce the frame rates needed. This kind of 3D technology also has a history of producing headaches for viewers, but early reviews of the 3D Vision system have been extremely positive with no mention of any such strain, even after long play hours.
iZ3D's stereoscopic monitors tackle stereo imaging from a different angle. An ingenious double-layer LCD screen is used in combination with a set of polarised glasses. The bottom layer of the LCD screen shows a combined image with both left and right eye data, and the second LCD layer changes the polarisation angle of each individual pixel as it's displayed. The glasses use simple polarised lenses to let light of a certain angle through, and partially or completely block other light out depending on its angle.
Polarised glasses are a much cheaper commodity than active shutter glasses like the NVIDIA solution - and they don't need to be constantly synchronised to the display. They also don't affect a game's frame rate - and 3D monitors from pretty much every major monitor manufacturer are reportedly in development using similar polarisation technology.
The iZ3D 22" 1680x1050 monitor is now available for a US$399 retail price - making it fairly similar to the NVIDIA solution plus a compatible 120Hz monitor. Early reviews suggest the left-right image separation currently needs tweaking to sort out some annoying issues, but the system works with both ATI and NVIDIA graphics cards, costs are sure to drop dramatically with volume and the weight of the industry would appear to be behind polarisation as the stronger option in the long term.
Most reviewers agree that the new technologies produce pretty sensational results with a range of current games - but when developers start actually working the effects possible with stereo vision into their games, the fun should really kick off. Most games, viewed with either of these technologies, extend in depth into the screen, but not out of it towards the viewer. This is sure to change. Also, some effects, which are applied to many game engines AFTER 3D information has already been rendered, need to be turned off so as not to negatively effect play. NVIDIA is in the process of working with major game developers to make sure everything on the screen is 3D-ready as this segment is sure to take off in a big way over the next few years.
The stereoscopic 3D revolution was always on the way for gamers - and now that multi-core processing and massive video card power are becoming the norm, we are starting to see the first wave of affordable consumer products that are able to take us into the third dimension for a more immersive experience. Stay tuned!