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Finding a new dimension for gaming at the 3D Gaming Summit


A small crowd of movie and game producers met this week at Universal City in Los Angeles for the first-ever 3D Gaming Summit, to sit down and discuss the trend of 3D imaging in gaming and film. Much of the talk at the summit was speculative -- with almost no actual consumer devices on the market and nearly none within price range of the average consumer anyway, gaming in 3D isn't much more than an idea at this point. Most of the technology companies in attendance are still working to get content producers to use their systems to create games and films rather than selling hardware directly to consumers.

Still, the panels and discussions at the summit offered an interesting look at what many believe to be the eventual future of the industry. From a lunchtime interview with Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson to a Playstation Move demo (and a panel moderated by a Joystiq editor), the 3D Gaming Summit showed off a lot of guesswork, a few interesting demos, and a few big holes that will need to be filled if 3D gaming is going to ever take off.

Outside of the main panel room, booths were set up around the Universal Hilton with 3D displays of all kinds. Sony was in attendance showing off Gran Turismo, MLB 10 The Show, and a few other games in 3D, while Nvidia was displaying its work on Everquest II, a great-looking Just Cause 2, and Metro 2033. All of those games used powered glasses to accomplish the 3D effect -- various images from different angles flashed too quickly for the eye to see on the screen, and then the glasses "flickered" (many times a second) the views into each eye, creating a mostly impressive 3D effect.

There were also some "non-powered" glasses-based 3D displays on view as well, including Darkworks' TriOviz technology running on Batman: Arkham Asylum. But for the most part, all of the tech on display was simply for demonstration -- aside from Darkworks' method, all of them required special monitors and special glasses, that are either still experimental or probably still too expensive for the average consumer.

Inside the panels, there was lots of enthusiasm about 3D, but very little finished product. Paul W.S. Anderson sat down for a lunchtime interview to talk about his work on the upcoming 3D Resident Evil: Afterlife movie, and while he didn't talk much about gaming, he did say that editing his film in 3D had made him a believer -- he felt that 3D technology would "change the game -- like the introduction of color photography." He said that just as players like him immersed themselves in the Resident Evil games by playing them "at night with the lights down," 3D would help immersion in both films and games, to the point where it would eventually become a standard. Anderson also suggested that games and movies could help each other with costs in the future -- both media need to "learn to share their assets." But he lamented the fact that no one with "practical knowledge in both industries" had yet appeared to make that happen quickly.

Game developers echoed that idea later in the day -- while the technology for 3D is almost there, both hardware manufacturers and content creators are still trying to figure out how to make it work. In a panel that was meant to show off "Lessons from the Field" of 3D gaming, Epic Games' Mark Rein both scoffed at the quality of current 3D technologies, and yet admitted that he could foresee 3D as being the catalyst to usher in the next console generation. "Move and Natal are a testing ground," he said, for 3D control, and the next generation of hardware would be pushed to keep up with graphics. But he also pointed out that game designers have a head start: "Filmmakers have a tougher job -- we already make 3D worlds."

Developers on that panel also pointed out that 3D won't really take off in gaming until there's a gameplay idea that makes it necessary. Luis Giglioti, the executive producer of THQ's Metro 2033, pointed out that while his team was working on 3D for the game, he started thinking in three dimensions of gameplay, comparing how a sniper rifle might work as opposed to a shotgun in a true 3D view. But even that, he admitted, is just applying 3D thinking over our current 2D gameplay -- eventually, game designers will need to come up with something really original to do in 3D.

Unfortunately for the game developers on display, an audience member brought up a solid point after their presentations: almost all of the demos they showed – from an Unreal Engine build running in 3D, to Everquest 2 and Metro 2033 and Lost Planet 2 running in 3D – had been miscalibrated for the screen they were shown on that day. To scattered applause from the rest of the crowd, the audience member scolded the panelists, saying that if they couldn't get their own technology to display correctly at a conference, then it wouldn't be any use in the real world. All of the panelists sheepishly admitted that the technology was still "bleeding edge," and that more work needed to be done to make sure screens were calibrated correctly.

I was lucky enough to moderate a panel later in the afternoon -- ostensibly, it was to be about "the Global 3D Landscape," but when we put analyst Michael Pachter, Insomniac's Mike Acton, gaming vetern Dave Perry, and Majesco Entertainment's Kevin Ray onstage with James Bower of MasterImage 3D (a 3D display manufacturer) and screenwriter and game producer Matty Rich, the conversation quickly spun off into a debate about whether 3D is really what we need as gamers. Acton argued that as a developer, he programmed for hardware, and if the hardware wasn't there, the content wouldn't be either. Ray agreed, saying that gaming in 3D was at least a few years off, and wouldn't take hold until both the experiences and the hardware were in place.

I brought up the Nintendo 3DS, and Pachter said Nintendo would release "the first mass-produced, mass-purchased three-dimensional device." He said that the smaller screen would make the technology more workable, and with Nintendo's own software, "there will be a ton of games." Pachter said that if Nintendo pulled it off, companies like Apple would follow suit, and bet that we'd see a 3D-enabled iPad very soon. Ray said that he'd take that bet (as would most of the other panelists), but agreed that Nintendo's console would be a test -- "it'll be easy to get the Nintendo fanboy, so it'll be a commercial success ... But the test is whether it expands the demographic, because there's something that's offered in the experience that wasn't there before." Perry said he believed that even though gameplay would drive the demand, 3D visuals were a given for gaming (and Bower promised it would be a revolution), just as gaming had already proceeded from 2D to 3D to HD, and so on.

At the end of the day, David Coombes, the Platform Research Manager at Sony, gave a quick presentation about the technical aspects of using 3D in games. He talked a little bit about the nuts and bolts of 3D imaging, and how, by displaying a different parallel image for each eye, displays could trick the viewer into thinking they were seeing a real picture. He also pointed out the limits of 3D, like "window violations" (where the screen's edge cuts off a 3D form, a serious problem in games, where players often control the camera) and issues with the HUD. Crosshairs, he said, don't really work in 3D, since sighting down a gun often depends on the player using one eye to line up the sights.

And he closed off the summit's first day with an impressive demo of PlayStation Move (the same one we saw at GDC earlier this year). Coombes used a software demo to change the controllers on screen into swords, a Sony logo, and at one amusing point, 3D models of the actual controllers (the shape of the physical controllers showed through his hands). He demonstrated how quick the system was by actually tossing one of the controllers in the air while it represented a sword on screen -- the controller/blade flipped a few times until Coombes caught it again by the "hilt." And Coombes showed off Move's body tracking function, suggesting that developers could implement better 3D simply by tracking the player's movement, and adjusting the screen view according to that.

The first annual 3D Gaming Summit had plenty of interesting tech demos (and even a truck showing off custom-made 3D glasses), but even the professionals in attendance seemed to agree that the concept is still in the planning stages. "Nintendo fanboys" aside, the consensus was that it will likely be a while, possibly even years, until we see gaming in 3D become commonplace.

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