Is Stereoscopic 3D gaming ready?

Amidst all this talk of 3D televisions and 3D movies, it's easy to forget one art-form that's been 3D since 1981 - Gaming. The Sinclair ZX81 had what many regard to be the first 3D game - 3D Monster Maze, which placed the player in a maze with a T-Rex, the objective being to escape before you got eaten.

But that isn't true 3D - it's not the kind that we've been looking at all week here on Pocket-lint. However the fact that games have already perfected the depiction of a 3D world is important - it means that there's far fewer problems to solve to get a real 3D experience.

In film, there's no interactivity. You're stuck in one place. Unless you use a sophisticated camera to capture the position in space of everything you're shooting, and then simulate a 3D world (just like a game), then there's no way of accurately simulating three dimensions. You're seeing just one perspective, with a little bit of added depth.

The exception is animated movies, which exist in a 3D world already. These are easier to convert - but to get a realistic 3D effect you still have to simulate the engine that they've been built in on whatever you're watching the movie on - something that requires considerably more processing power than most televisions are equipped with.

Games, on the other hand, have long displayed that 3D world. Their interactivity means that you can move the camera - you can choose your perspective. The downside is that you can only play them on devices that have the heft to render that three-dimensional world - and if you want a good quality picture in HD, then you'll need a lot of heft.

It's all about that perspective, y'see. A full experience in three dimensions can only be simulated if you can look around the sides of things. Games have that capability - unlike movies. All that you need to make that a reality is a way of tracking where your head is. Once you've got that, then a viewer can easily lean or even move left or right to get a different perspective on things.

One limitation is that you still need to be facing the screen - you can't be completely immersed with a traditional display screen. One company, Vuzix, has experimented with glasses that have display screens in and are equipped with accelerometers so that you can spin around 180 degrees in reality and still see what's virtually behind you. However - the company hasn't cracked the technology yet - it's buggy and unreliable.

So what are the other options for gamers wanting 3D? Graphics card manufacturer NVidia has a 3D gaming kit that includes a set of shuttered glasses, and a special graphics card and driver that allows you to turn "hundreds" of PC games into stereoscopic 3D. For that, though you'll need a monitor that can display in 120Hz - double the speed of most monitors. At the time of writing, only two are available - from Samsung and Viewsonic.

Even if you do plump for that option, that doesn't provide the all-important head tracking, so you'll still need to physically move around in the game to see the sides of things - there'll just be the impression of depth given by the shuttered glasses.

The best solution, which doesn't seem to be available, would be a combination of the technologies available. A set of shuttered glasses from NVidia that include a considerably better-tuned version of the accelerometers found in Vuzix's 3D glasses.

However, it appears that we're still a way off getting that tuning right, so a compromise solution for the time being could be to use Wii-style motion sensing. A Microsoft researcher called Johnny Chung Lee has demonstrated this idea in the following video:

The one issue with this approach, even when combined with shuttered glasses to improve the picture, is that only one person can play at a time. That's fine for some games, but multiplayer games would require some sort of split-screen capability to work, and a way of differentiating between two different people's head positions.

So is stereoscopic 3D gaming ready for mainstream adoption? No, but in terms of the most realistic 3D simulation, it's development is far further ahead than traditional moving pictures. Within a few years, we'll know if realistic head tracking using accelerometers is possible, or whether there's a better way to approach it.

Until then, if you're dead set on gaming in 3D, then NVidia's kit is really your only option.

UPDATE: Another company, DDD, has got in touch to let us know that they too offer a stereoscopic 3D driver for games, and a set of shutter glasses - much like NVidia's. We're trying to find out where they're available in the UK. Another option is iZ3D's 22-inch monitor, though again that appears to have very limited availability in Britain.