Saturday, 12 June 2010

Editorial: 3D Visions - The Next Arms Race?

The lure of 3D to the gaming industry is no more surprisingly than the increased focus on the format in recent film production, with many new releases being retrofitted for screenings in 3D in order to generate that extra buzz required to bring more people into the cinema. Everyone it seems is after a piece of the pie, and given the renewed public interest in viewing movies down at the local picture house it was only a matter of time until some of gaming’s big guns got on board.

Cineworld recently reported a 17% increase in ticket sales directly as a result of 3D movie screenings, and most of which were at the higher price charged for seeing a film in 3D. The effect it has had for the film industry has not gone unnoticed, with various high profile game developers stating that this new format could well be the future of videogaming as a whole.

Many state the incredibly accurate depth perception that comes from using the format, along with the increased levels of immersion when putting the player visually closer to the action - taking them perhaps further into the game than ever before - as the main reason for pushing forward with the tech.

Perhaps in this case 3D does more for most games that it does for most films. Improving our judgement of space and distance on a 2D display, separating images clearly from one another allowing us to truly experience more life-like scenarios than ever before. For gaming, the use of 3D, and in coordination with motion controls opens us up to a world in which we can feel really connected in a way that a film never could. And it’s this feeling which has driven many software developers and hardware companies into investing in its future.

With the DS in its fifth year, and the two most powerful current-gen consoles in a strong battle of one-upmanship over features, 3D represents a clear path for at least one of those two companies to distinguish themselves. Sony in particular - going for the ‘it does everything’ impression with the PS3 - sees 3D as their next milestone in gaming, hoping to become synonymous with the format in time for the next generation of consoles still a few years away.

Despite support for the format from Microsoft (although more concerned with Natal at this point) Sony in particular want to be seen as ‘the company’ who delivers the most cutting-edge of all 3D content, lining up a barrage of compatible titles at this year’s E3.

Sony are clearly aiming at the high-end here, with the prices of 3D enabled HDTV’s starting around £1700 and going up to at least £2200 for Panasonic’s reference level VT20. Admittedly not cheap, and certainly out of the mainstream user’s standard price range, which means that any uptake is going to be rather slow and distinctly pedestrian at first.

However, Sony and many other publishers see a potentially bright future going down the 3D route, ensuring their focus is strong and their software line-up defining enough to make a dent in peoples impressions. Plus in a few years time it is expected that most 3D compatible tellies will be available from at least 37” as the norm, with some smaller high-end 32” models also featuring the tech. Eventually though, every single HDTV will support the format, and its inclusion will read out like another check-box feature such as ‘100Hz processing’ or ‘HD Ready 1080p’.

Clearly this is just what Sony are counting on, and their aim to deliver the definitive 3D experience in light of this potential is understandable. Sure, it may take a few years for the tech to become widely adopted by the mainstream, and the overall cost associated with development may well go up (inevitable regardless of the inclusion of 3D), but at least they could have a much stronger position in the market as a result. Or that’s how they appear to be looking at it, adopting a standard long before it has any real presence in the consumer domain and turning it around so that it does in fact become prevalent. It’s this forward-thinking approach which catapulted the PS2 to worldwide success, but which also stalled the initial uptake of the PS3 with the insistence on pushing BluRay.

Nintendo on the other hand, are trying something altogether different. Once again they are focusing on the handheld market, in which they’ve held nothing but a dominant position since they first unleashed the GameBoy to the masses some twenty years ago. With 3D they have found a clear gap in which to exploit, however gimmicky it initially appears, and this could indeed set them apart from other manufactures in the handheld space. Yes, I’m talking about the 3DS.

Nintendo’s latest handheld is likely to be a very affordable entry into the world of 3D – below £200 price point is likely – and with complete backwards compatibility guaranteed for all NDS and DSi titles they won’t be alienating their existing user base, simply building right on top of it. Also, if rumours are to be believed the company has something else up its sleeve with the 3DS outside of its auto-stereoscopic screen.

Currently, the effect of viewing 3D images on such a small scale is relatively unproven, though somewhat tantalising, and its use in at least one Japanese smart phone has apparently yielded promising results. And perhaps this is the reason behind the push forward into that realm of an extra dimension, not only because hardly anyone else has done this before, but because Nintendo have a clear track record of taking something untested and making it work in areas others have failed (VitualBoy aside).

Disruption like with the NDS and the Wii, is the key here. They need something other than motion controls and the touch screen - which Apple have made their own, and which Sony are no doubt eying up for PSP2 - to once again separate themselves from others in the market, and they know it. 3D is one of those things, but with the option to turn it off, not the only one it seems. More surprises then? All will be revealed at E3.

Like with Sony, Nintendo not only hopes to capture a large chunk of the market, along the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere, but instead also intend to be the first ones to bring affordable 3D tech into the home. The 3DS with its estimated sub-£200 price point (I’m gambling on £169.99 or 179.99 as the clincher) has far more potential at opening up the gaming mass-market to 3D technology, in both the handheld space and the home consumer market than the exuberant price tags that accompany bleeding-edge 3D HDTV’s.

Being cheaper and more affordable is a start, but they need more than price on their side. They need to impress. But what if this new technology turns out to be something of substance, really visually impressive on the small scale? It could convince many people into buying one of those expensive 46”+ size HDTV’s we mentioned earlier, thus in turn actually helping Sony and their high-end approach to 3D gaming, and industry adoption of the format in general.

Looking at it this way, it’s not hard to see that the consumer is presented with what looks like a win-win scenario, with both ends of the pricing scale accommodated for. I also imagine that Microsoft will begin driving forward 3D support in conjunction with Natal if the PS3’s attempt to capture this new market gains momentum, especially if it has a noticeable impact in 3D HDTV sales – more TV’s sold means more opportunities for pushing the format, and greater sales potential for all that extra work. Sales of current HDTV’s jumped with the advent of high-def consoles, and then exponentially so with the eradication of standard-def CRT’s from the market.

Either way, the thing to remember is that the notion of 3D isn’t particularly new, and it will take a few years of price reductions on HDTV’s, and impressive software to convince the consumer to invest. The glasses also are another hindrance, heavier and more bulky than their cinema equivalent. Even then, it’s hard to expect any revelations, or even a major impact on the console front before the next-generation of systems is upon us. 3DS aside, which looks to comfortably occupy its own space, for now anyway. In the end the seeds are being sewn, and the groundwork being laid. All that’s left is to see how we as consumers perceive the road lying ahead, and whether or not this is indeed the path we’d like to go down.

Other than trying to predict what might happen , something tells me that this story is going to be particularly interesting, it could in effect usher in a new level of interactive entertainment with both 3D and motion controls at the forefront. Or it could simply fall flat on its backside, another reminder of what happens when the industry tries to push something that just isn’t ready. The death of classic gaming this is not, that’s for certain. But a mere an expansion into areas that bring us closer to the games we play, and the worlds we get so immersed in.

Near defining statements aside, all shall be revealed at this year’s E3 in two days time. There we will have a better view on just what each manufacturers plans are for the format, and how this much-talked about 3D thingy finally fits into place.

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