Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

3D Games Wait for Their Avatar Moment

3D movie-making is Hollywood's latest obsession, but major game companies—and gamers—are giving the technology a pass for now.

IMAGINE A WORLD where Avatar bombed—an alternate reality where critics panned it, fans gave it little attention and its 3D effects were either ignored or downplayed as gimmicky.

It turns out that scenario is no fiction. It just doesn’t apply to Avatar the movie. While James Cameron’s epic sci-fi film has been wildly successful, its video game adaptation—developed by Ubisoft Montreal—made no impact on the game industry whatsoever, despite being one of the first games released in 3D on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.

A still from the Avatar 3D game.

In the wake of the movie Avatar’s success, film producers are scrambling to switch as many projects over to 3D as they can. Most major game companies, however, have stated they’re giving the technology a pass for now, with Sony as the only big player to embrace a potentially stereoscopic future. And gamers themselves seem mostly indifferent. Bloggers who’ve tried the latest 3D games have reported back with a resounding “Meh.”

Given the chance to try out Sony’s initial 3D offerings at January’s Consumer Electronics Show, Ben Kuchera of tech blog Ars Technica was underwhelmed. Of racing game Gran Turismo 5, he wrote, “The game looks great, and it plays just as well as you could imagine, but after a few minutes I was ready to take the glasses off and play the game using the standard graphics on a normal television.” In a comprehensive review of a 3D computer graphics card from manufacturer nVidia, Hilbert Hagedoorn of Guru3D said he enjoyed the 3D experience overall, but didn’t think it could be more than a niche product.

That kind of reaction is not good news for Sony, which had used the CES to hype its commitment to a 3D-filled future. This year, Sony is releasing a line of HD-3D televisions, adding 3D capabilities to all PlayStation 3 consoles (including existing ones through a downloadable update), and partnering with content producers to create 3D TV networks. "Our goal is to become an undisputed global leader in 3D," trumpeted Sony CEO Howard Stringer.

Elsewhere, though, major game companies are taking a much more cautious approach. Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata told the Associated Press he doubts people will want to play games while wearing 3D glasses and questioned whether companies have adequately studied potential health effects. The president of EA Sports, developer of top-selling games like the NHL and Madden NFL series, told that his company had no 3D games in the works.

At the CES, Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg, director of product management for Xbox 360, told G4TV he doesn’t believe 3D gaming will catch on the way 3D films seemingly have. "I think 3D is a great experience in the theatre and I thought Avatar was fantastic," he said, "but there's a lot of challenges about 3D in the living room. I don't know about you, but when I play games or watch TV, I've got my phone. I've got all kinds of things going on. I get up, I get down. I'm looking outside at the weather and it's. . . I'm not in a dark theatre, wearing glasses, staring at a screen. I think it's just a different environment." The only Xbox 360 game shown using 3D was a downloadable racing game that used old-fashioned red-and-blue-style glasses (and induced headaches, according to G4TV’s reviewer).

Modern 3D technology is much more advanced than that. 3D movies in theatres are shown using polarized light, alternately projecting two different images at a super-fast rate of 144 frames per second. A screen in front of the projector polarizes the two images, with one displaying what the right eye would see and polarized clockwise and the other, for the left eye, polarized counter-clockwise. The glasses worn by the audience are correspondingly polarized so that each eye receives only the image intended for it.

The home 3D experience offered by Sony and nVidia relies on what’s called “active shutter” technology. A high-frequency monitor displays two images in rapid succession—one designed for the left eye and one for the right. Meanwhile, the viewer wears a pair of glasses in which the lenses are actually small LCD screens. These screens rapidly alternate between being opaque and transparent, so that each eye sees only its intended image as it’s flashed on the screen. The monitor and glasses have to synchronize with each other, which requires special TVs able to transmit the necessary information. For computers, a 3D-capable graphics card with corresponding software and glasses will do the trick. 3D monitors and televisions must also have a high-frequency refresh rate (the number of times per second the screen shows a new image), in order to alternate images fast enough to trick our eyes into believing they’re part of one 3D image.

A big downside to playing games in 3D is that a game’s animation framerate is effectively cut in half. A monitor that shows 120 frames per second—a standard on most HDTVs—is actually showing 60 frames for the left eye and 60 for the right instead of 120 for both. The result for gamers can be choppy animation. PC users can solve the problem by buying a more expensive graphics card with higher processing power. Console owners will have to rely on game developers engineering solutions to make their games run smoothly, or wait until a new, more powerful generation of consoles is born.

Needing such top-of-the-line hardware means home-based 3D comes with a hefty price tag, which may be the key reason it hasn’t taken off yet. Hardly anybody even noticed the Avatar video game was playable in 3D since only a tiny number of people have the equipment necessary to play it that way. The cost of switching over to all new equipment is a major deal-breaker (especially for people who may have just switched from DVDs to Blu-Rays and regular TV to HDTV). It could prove difficult for game developers as well, already burdened with ballooning budgets as technological advances necessitate larger development rosters. Sony has an in-house team converting Sony-produced games like Gran Turismo 5, LittleBigPlanet and WipEout HD Fury into 3D. However, unless 3D provides tangible sales benefits, third-party developers may decide they’d rather spend their energy on something else than just giving people a reason to buy Sony TVs and consoles.

As movie producers chase the extra three dollars per ticket that a 3D movie represents, so too will Sony and nVidia continue to hype the increased market share that 3D means for them. Right now, nobody else seems all that interested, but home-based 3D has potential for growth. The hardware will likely become cheaper as early adopters drive prices down. Technological advances may eliminate the need for unwieldy glasses. And the combination of 3D gaming with the latest motion-controls could prove to be fertile ground for amazing new gameplay experiences. Certainly, there are reasons to be excited, but for now, 3D videogaming is still waiting for its Avatar moment.