Where next for stereoscopic 3D gaming? And, by extension, what is that first properly 3D game - that title that will be the benchmark for all the subsequent 3D games to follow - going to be like?
These are vital, timely questions for hardcore gamers and games developers alike, as a familiar haze of cynical disinterestedness settles over the first batch of 3D games on PC and PlayStation 3.
Indeed, a recent report claims that, despite the concerted push from the TV and display industry to leverage 3D as an added-value feature on your new telly or PC monitor, many users will still rarely watch or play with 3D content in future.
Informa Telecoms & Media claims that, despite 3D soon set to become a default feature on our TVs and PC monitors, 3D TV will not be a mainstream success, with less than half of the 11 million 3DTV-ready UK homes in 2016 set to be active, regular users of 3D TV.
"We do not share the view that 3D represents the obvious next evolutionary step for TV, in the same way that colour followed black and white, or HD is following SD," reads Informa's damning report on the future of 3D.
"Colour and HD offer noticeable enhancements to the technologies that preceded them. But 3D TV is less of an enhancement and rather more a new type of viewing experience - one that many people will enjoy, but some way from becoming ubiquitous."
3D gaming: our only hope
Yet while those types of findings may well trouble the likes of Sky or Virgin Media, many gamers and games creators argue that it is the latest developments in 3D PC and console gaming that are really set to drive uptake of 3D tech in the home. However, some detractors of 3D in the games industry are beginning to argue that the heavy PR focus on 3D gaming tech and content from the likes of Nvidia and Sony in recent years may well have been misplaced.
"I think for a large number of consumers, stereoscopic 3D (in its current technological implementation) will remain incidental to gaming," says games analyst Nick Gibson, from Games Investor Consulting, "a fun option to have but just that, an option not a gaming necessity. This may change gradually as 3D becomes more ubiquitous but I think it will take a different technological implementation of stereoscopic 3D to make it a widespread must-have for gaming."
Unphased by such criticism, Sony recently unveiled its own competitively-priced PlayStation-branded 3D monitor at E3 2011, following major 3D marketing campaigns surrounding recent PS3 titles such as MotorStorm: Apocalypse, Killzone 3 and Gran Turismo 5.
3D SCREEN: Sony introduced the latest hardware at E3 2011
Additionally, one leading British developer that begs to disagree with Informa's rather negative take on 3D content development is Andrew Oliver, CTO of Leamington-based Blitz Games Studios.
"Up to now there's been a real chicken-and-egg situation with the uptake of 3D in the home," argues the 3D gaming evangelist. "The TV manufacturers have been pushing the technology further and the price is starting to lower but the installed base won't increase until there's a good spread of 3D content available.
3D gaming starting to gain momentum
Oliver points out that the catch-22 for 3D gaming is the fact that entertainment companies won't bother investing in pushing out new 3D content until there's a big enough installed base of equipment to make it worth their while.
"I personally feel that this process is starting to gain some momentum now, though - more and more animated features are becoming available on 3D Blu-Ray, because they're being produced for the cinema anyway, and broadcasters are starting to commit to some 3D content too.
INVINCIBLE TIGER: Blitz Games' groundbreaking stereoscopic 3D console game
Out of all the major gaming console manufacturers, it is clearly Sony that has the most to gain from convincing gamers and TV-buyers that 3D is a viable tech for them to invest in right now.
"Sony is best placed to progress both sides of this scenario, " says Oliver, "as they have a stake in TVs, projectors, Blu-Rays, games consoles and content creation - so if anyone can get this moving it's them! And as soon as glasses-free TVs become affordable too then we'll really start to see 3D hitting the domestic mass market in a big way."
Microsoft's 3D reticence
However, over in Redmond, Microsoft appears to still be "surprisingly reticent about actively embracing 3D," argues the Blitz CTO. "They've recently updated the Xbox 360 to include stereoscopic 3D as standard so that's a great leap forward but I'd personally like to see more of a commitment in the coming year or so."
NINTENDO 3DS: The latest auto-stereoscopic 3D gaming
Nintendo is currently leading the handheld 3D charge with the recently launched auto-stereoscopic 3DS, which Oliver thinks is "a great introduction to 3D for a lot of people, but the limited screen space and the nature of the glasses-free experience on the device has sadly put some people off.
"I think it's a great piece of kit, though, and when the content embraces 3D properly, the effects do look really cool on it - I hope that it ultimately helps people to see the potential of what 3D can bring to a gaming experience."
3D iPad gaming
The market for hardcore gaming is no longer all about the traditional three big console manufacturers, of course, with development of quality mobile and handheld gaming expanding and fragmenting at a phenomenal rate right now.
So what of the new movers and shakers in the handheld and mobile 3D gaming market? Specifically, will Apple soon embrace 3D on the iPad and iPhone?
3D IPAD 3? Apple could be the next gaming brand to push new 3D content
"Apple has been surprisingly quiet in this space and I'm actually a little surprised," says Oliver, "because they're always at the height of technology. Given there are already technologies that can display 3D with no comprise to 2D, it's surprising that they haven't exploited this yet.
"After all, an iPad that could display 3D movies perfectly, probably without glasses, would not only sell very well at a premium price, but would also sell a lot of premium-priced 3D content on the movie and app store too."
There has already been a number of 3D tablet devices announced for the consumer market, with the likes of the next Asus Eee Pad MeMo set to arrive with glasses-free 3D, which leads the Blitz Games CTO to speculate that "maybe Apple will join the fray with the iPad 3?"
Quality content and innovative design
The bottome line is this. While 3D gaming developers such as Andrew Oliver are impressed with the likes of Samsung's latest active shutter 3D TV tech and LG's latest passive polarisation offerings, he agrees that the real battle is to provide quality content and innovative 3D games design.
"It's very difficult to tell people why 3D will make such a difference to game design, although I really do believe it makes a big difference," he says.
"The problem we'll continue to face is that, until you've experienced 3D gaming done well, or good 3D content of any type, it's very easy to be dismissive of its impact. Just as when movies went into colour for the first time, 'non-believers' dismissed the new technology as unnecessary because they couldn't see what it would add to the overall consumer experience.
CONTENT IS KING: Quality content is still required
"I think people are now starting to see that it really does add something, though. Broadcasters such as Sky have realised that content such as sport can really benefit for the extra detail and clarity that 3D brings, just as they did when HD was first entering the mainstream.
"Likewise, in games, sports titles (including racing) could well be one of the genres that gets people more interested. Ultimately I think game designers will start to consider designing for 3D as just another technique in their toolbox and it will be factored into all types of games."
Oliver is still realistic about the fact that 3D will continue to have a lot of sceptics in the gaming market because of the many associated technical challenges and the costs, "although both of these will become less of an issue as time goes on."
In the Blitz CTO's opinion, the fact is that the hardware is finally coming now ("as people upgrade their TVs over the next few years, everyone will eventually have a 3D set whether they planned to or not") added to the fact that the console manufacturers are doing what they can to allow 3D content to appear on their machines means that, "it's now down to game developers and publishers to take the leap of faith, and the financial commitment, obviously, to make the content happen. However, I believe that it will start to become more prolific, and probably sooner than most people expect."
3D casual and social gaming
Elsewhere, in terms of 3D gaming in the thriving casual and social gaming markets, we spoke with Joe McCormack, CEO at Adotomi, who reminds us how the concept of 3D gaming has been all the rage since Avatar reignited the prospects for 3D in the entertainment marketplace.
"2010, especially, was supposed to be the year of 3D, with television makers rushing their 3D models to stores. 3D gaming was soon to follow, with Sony announcing early plans to support the technology, and Nintendo's 3DS acting as proof of concept, even wowing us along the way for the lack of accompanying glasses."
Neatly summing up the current state of 3D gaming, Adotomi's in-house analyst, Adam Taylor adds: "The question underlying all of this, and all the talk, is whether or not 3D gaming is simply a gimmick mixed with marketing hype, or whether or not it really is the future of gaming. We're of the opinion that while there's certainly gimmicky aspects to the technology, 3D will indeed be central to the future of gaming."
In an increasingly mature and crowded marketplace, the big three console makers are looking for the next innovation to get their consumers excited, notes Adotomi's analyst. "The Wii's motion capabilities shook the marketplace, and Sony and Microsoft hustled to innovate alongside, producing the PlayStation Move and Xbox Kinect. Yet, for the core gamer, the heart of the gaming experience lies with one word: immersion.
"Core gamers want a more immersive game experience, and if you look at the industry's history, that's where the real exciting innovations have been - from better physics engines, to increased interaction and destruction of the game world, to increased persistence of online worlds. The future of gaming lies in the continued breaking down of the line between player and the gaming world of their choice. This is where 3D comes in, and why motion technologies will only ever be an adjunct to the industry, as opposed to its beating heart."
IMMERSION: The key to the future of 3D gaming tech and development
Still, Taylor is the first to accept that we're not quite there yet, arguing that there still needs to be a stronger penetration of 3D televisions in the marketplace, improved standards adoption between the various proprietary 3D technologies on offer and, most importantly, the current availability of quality 3D games.
"Some of the ones that we've seen have been fantastic," Taylor enthuses. "But again, they still occupy a niche role in the market. Money and resources in game studios are still flowing to mainstream 'tent-pole' games and with most gamers unequipped with a 3D-enabled TV, or otherwise not willing to wear cumbersome glasses once the novelty wears off, games publishers are going to be hesitant to throw the budgets into developing the 3D aspect."
3D graphics tech from Nvidia and AMD
Back in that place where most new hardcore gaming developments take shape, the PC gaming market, Dell's gaming subsidiary Alienware recently launched its first 3D gaming laptop, the M17X, with the company's manager for EMEA, Eoin Leyden, explaining the company's 3D strategy to TechRadar:
"In terms of the technology, Alienware is pretty much vendor agnostic when it comes to the specific technologies. So, for example, we don't necessarily have any preference for Nvidia over AMD when it comes to graphics. All we are about is trying to deliver the technology that people want.
"At the moment, on the 3D side, Nvidia has somewhat of a head start. AMD's solution right now is a little bit more complicated as it requires some middleware, which doesn't make it an ideal thing for us to offer directly. This is why all the 3D offerings in our portfolio are Nvidia-based, because that's just the way the market is at the moment.
ALIENWARE M17X: A powerful beast of a 3D gaming laptop
"In terms of demand, we have only just recently launched our first 17-inch 3D laptop and the uptake is pretty strong. However, remember that not all 3D monitors are being used by PC gamers for 3D content. Many of them are more interested in the fact that it is a 120Hz monitor, so you can get 120 frames per second - and for serious hardcore gamers and competitive players, it is ALL about frame-rate."
The Alienware exec thinks that most high-end monitors will all soon be 3D enabled, and that "the number of 3D capable PC systems is going to explode, but whether or not people actually use them for 3D content is a different thing altogether.
"The biggest challenge in all of this is that nobody likes to see competing technologies holding back adoption rates, as people are afraid to invest in hardware that might become obsolete very quickly. So that's the biggest negative to what's going on. Right now you have polarisation or you have active shutter, and they pretty much net out to the same thing, in terms of the experience."
CRYSIS 2: But will we look back and laugh in 10 years?
So far, it seems that 3D PC gaming has not had the same amount of media coverage in 2011 compared with the initial wave of hype and excitement back in 2009 and 2010.
"The nub of this whole conversation about 3D gaming is about content," says Leyden. "Games are effectively created in 3D. Yet, historically, the last step developers do is to then go and render that on a flat 2D surface, which is quite a bizarre way of doing things, really!
"However, that said, he problem with the current approach to creating a 3D effect by games developers is that it still tends to render the 3D into the screen. So the 3D effect goes into the screen as opposed to popping out of the screen at you."
3D gaming versus IMAX 3D
The Alienware rep compares this to the experience of going to an IMAX 3D cinema, where you feel like grabbing the virtual objects floating in front of you. "The challenge, of course, from a gaming perspective is that you cannot do that with the current types of 3D tricks that developers use. You almost have to direct the scene to create this 3D effect.
"These scenes in the cinema are very, very carefully orchestrated and directed. Within current gaming, that is something that is almost impossible to do. You can do it in cut scenes, or in a game where you are on the rails - where you lose that degree of control of your character - because otherwise the pop-out from the screen is unpredictable and you can get all sorts of artefacts and things like that.
IMAX 3D: Can home-based gaming ever beat the Hollywood blockbuster?
"So the problem today is that most of the 3D gaming content has basically been created by that first stage easy fix, which creates 3D into the screen as opposed to popping out, which is less compelling. And I think that is why the initial hype around 3D gaming has dampened down a little bit."
That being said, Leyden is also quick to remind us that there are still some titles already out that look fantastic in 3D. "Crysis 2, for example, especially if you can do multi-monitor 3D, looks the business. Yet it is still into the screen, not out of the screen. So at the moment, that is where we are a little bit stuck.
"The first big breakout 3D hit is going to be the first game that is actually going to target 3D as its platform of choice - instead of just creating a game, and offering 3D as an add-on, which is what is currently happening. So elements of the game will be designed specifically from a 3D standpoint, which will set the benchmark for the next wave of 3D games."
Let the 3D creatives run free!
Clearly, right now, we are still in the undecided phase of 3D game development, where the true creatives are not being given the free reign (or, crucially, the financial backing) to create 3D gaming experiences that will truly take the experience to the next level.
"It's the old chicken-and-egg situation," Leyden agrees, arguing that when the installed base gets bigger, because everybody has 3D, "then there will be a more compelling argument for the studios to put more effort into their 3D work - very much like the situation with affordable 'home theatre in a box' around ten years ago, when people started paying more attention to the audio on their DVDs. It's all about that installed base hitting critical mass."
What else might augment and improve our 3D gaming experience in the future? Might we see a move to 4D-style peripherals and add-ons offering wind and ambient-lighting effects in addition to flashy, fully-rendered 3D graphics that pop right out of the screen into your eyes?
"Ha! I think there is still an awful lot of work to be done on the basics, before we get into that stuff," laughs the Alienware exec.
Still scratching the surface of gaming
PC gaming has only been around for around 25 years, and Leyden thinks that "we are still scratching the surface in terms of what we need to be doing, we need to get the realism in the games, because all games still have that kind of cartoony feel to them, in the way that they are rendered. I've still to see a game that can convince me that it is anything other than a game.
"I mean, if you look at a good, pre-rendered 3D animated movie, like the recent Shrek, for example, that stuff is rendered on huge server farms to produce a very realistic-looking thing, modelling hair on characters on a strand-by-strand basis, or whatever. I mean, even to do that kind of thing on a PC, we would need hardware thousands of times faster than we have today.
"And even that, if you think about it, is just a cartoon! So what you really want is photorealistic rendering. You want ray-tracing. You want reflections and refractions of light. You want proper physics, at a particle level. You could go on forever on this…
"But if you look back at games from 10 or 15 years ago, you almost laugh at them and think how primitive they were. So 10 or 15 years from now, we will look back at laugh at Crysis 2 and say, "that was sooooo unsophisticated and naff-looking!
"10 or 15 years down the road, Crysis 2 is going to look like Pong looks to us now."
Most excitingly, all the indications from the hardware experts and 3D gaming developers TechRadar has spoken with recently suggest that 3D-out-of-the-screen gaming is soon going to be technically possible in mass market game development.
When we eventually reach the point where developers start to marry that technology up with something like Xbox 360 Kinect, then, in theory, gamers will soon be able to realistically manipulate objects in front of them - reaching out and interacting with something in the game that appears in-between themselves and the screen.
"Theoretically, this is all possible," says Leyden. "And that would open up an awful lot of very interactive potential. You know, it's all there. Just that at the moment it is too hard to try and do it.
"But also, it first needs a mind-set change amongst developers. To figure out how to use the technology in a meaningful way that adds something to the experience, to really create something compelling out of it."