Sunday, November 4, 2012

To 3D, or not to 3D: That is the question (or more likely, the debate)

3D. Stereoscopic imagery. The public perception I hear is that it's unwanted. Force fed. "Don't need it in my movies, don't need it my games." That's the prevailing attitude. Kotaku recently posted (gleefully) about the death of 3D. They imply that (in gaming) it was a failed experiment put on by Sony. This implication buoyed on statements made by EA Sports boss Peter Moore, who was recently quoted in an interview with Eurogamer that "3D is certainly not in any way on our list of things we are focused upon as a company. I look at gaming, and it just doesn't seem to be a major factor."..."It's just not a technology particularly in our world of gaming that seems to have got traction"..."If I was sceptical 18 months ago I remain sceptical."

If there isn't traction, is it due to lack of interest? Of content? Expense? It's likely a combination of all three that it isn't mainstream. However let's not confuse lack of mainstream with lack of traction, or even more presumptuous, that lack of mainstream today is lack of a future entirely.  I remember when only a handful of games supported a 16:9 aspect ratio.

And as far as public opinion on the matter, this article probably won't do much to change the hearts and minds of the majority. But at least we can talk about why gamers could (dare I say should) be excited for more 3D content, how 3D in games has a different use case than 3D in movies, and why people should stop complaining about the glasses.

"Don't like" vs. "Don't want" vs. "Don't have" vs. "Don't need"

Let's get this out there. There is a number of folks who genuinely "Don't like" 3D.  What's often less clear, is what about it don't you like?  And, if whatever aspect you don't like was changed, would that change your attitude?  We've all heard of people getting headaches or sick when watching 3D.  Some movers and shakers in the movie industry are combating this through the use of HFR (High Frame Rate) digital photography.  We'll have to wait until The Hobbit or Avatar 2 come out to see how we like HFR in movies, but among what they're trying to do is reduce eye fatigue and "stutter/juddering" on film with a higher frame rate.  Traditionally films have been projected in 24 fps (frames per second) and current HFR movies are being shot in 48 fps.  Video games vary from title to title, but most aim to keep frame rates between 30-60, alleviating in many cases the stutter and eye fatigue one may experience in the theater.  This is just one of the reasons one should not associate their taste or distaste of 3D movies with that of video games.  Another common complaint is the glasses.  I'll grant that they darken the image, but come on, they're not a hassle.  I recently read that people don't want to have to put on glasses to play a game.  That logic would apply to people not wanting to hold a controller to play a game.  Or put on a headset to play a game.  It doesn't hold water.  They're lightweight and fit over most glasses (giant hipster frames notwithstanding).

There are people who "Don't want" it. But like any coin that has two sides, lines get drawn, biases formed, and each party will aim to validate their choice.  This is truly conjecture, but I have to imagine that many people who "don't want" 3D are really people that "don't want it at a premium"; "don't want to pay a higher ticket price, or replace the HDTV that I've only purchased 3 years ago and is the pride and joy of my living room."  As costs go down, more and more price barriers will be crossed, and more and more 3D televisions will be purchased.

I can concede that at this point, there is not a industry shifting consumer demand for 3D.  However, there must be some level of consumer interest in 3D when you take into account the investments made in 3D movies from both a production standpoint and theater standpoint.  There has been and continues to be enough return on those investments for the content to be produced and distributed.  So the demand for personal content will likely follow when more home televisions come with 3D standard, i.e. when people aren't buying a TV for the 3D feature, but when it's naturally capable of rendering 3D content.  Most high-end televisions come with 3D today and just like power windows, key-less entry, and heated seats the feature will work it's way into most every model as the costs go down.

This whole idea applies to those who "Don't have".  Like I mentioned above, many consumers have only within the past few years, made the investment, likely as a splurge, in their HDTV.  Many of them buying the biggest and best they could afford.  I wouldn't expect or recommend that anyone considers these televisions obsolete and that they should run out and purchase one with a single (or few) added feature(s). The point here is that more content, game and media, will be more readily available when it's 3D sets are the rule, not the exception.  Just like HD channels slowly became available, so will 3D.  People that are claiming 3D dead, are missing the big picture.  Sony being an early advocate and provider of new technology is nothing new, 3D being the latest.  Just look at e-readers, which by the way were much criticized as a fad and people wouldn't want to replace the tactile experience of reading books, have to charge it to use it, and how it strained eyes (sound familiar?).  My bigger concern here is not that 3D fails, but that Sony yet again pioneers, but struggles to innovate.

And the last objection?  I "don't need" 3D?  Of course not.  I don't need the biggest TV I could get for a game to be fun.  I don't need surround sound either.  But, the larger television enhances the experience.  The surround sound (in my case, stereo headset) enhances the experience.  You don't need it, no.  But if you had it today, would you really not put the glasses on?

Why 3D Works Better in Games than in Movies (and better in some movies than others)

The "trick" with 3D is all in where you're looking onscreen vs. where you're intended to be looking.  This greatly impacts both the movie watching experience and moving making process.  That is, that there is a distinct difference in experience and approach when you have a movie made "in 3D" as opposed to a movie made "for 3D", and I'm not just talking about having gimmicky fish or swords jumping out towards the audience.

The illusion of 3D (as well as the comfort in watching it) has much to do with where you're focusing on the screen.  You need to be looking at what is in focus on the screen, where in the 3D space you need to be paying attention.  Objects in the foreground or background of that focus point, are intentionally blurry or even doubled as that's what your real vision is like.  This same principle applies to standard 2D movies, but the experience is more forgiving on your eyes during the split second following edits or changes when your eye moves towards whatever subject it's supposed to be looking at.  In a 3D movie, if you're focusing on a foreground flower in the top left of the screen and then the scene changes and a train at the center screen back ground is the point of focus and changes focus as it comes towards you, your eyes and mind have to more actively participate in "figuring out" the scene and point of focus.  Worse yet, right before you do, the shot may change again, and you're jarred into trying to refocus again.  This is often the discomfort associated with 3D.  In the immediate months following the success of Avatar, there were many movies converted to 3D to capitalize on the audiences' interest in the concept and willingness to travel to a theater in order to experience it, whereas still today few homes are equipped with a 3D television set.  The problem here is that these movies were composed with little to no thought in them being watched in 3D, so you had jarring "bad quality" 3D.  The "post-processing 3D" (not filmed with a 3D camera and digitally converted to 3D) was the scapegoat that was being blamed for the lack of quality, but I've seen post processed 3D that is more pleasing to the eye than some others, so I don't believe that is the cause.  These movies are the ones who were made "in 3D" and you still see the occasional ones coming out where the studio or producers make the call at the 11th hour before release, but less often so.

Now let's look at movies made "for 3D".  A movie that takes careful consideration in guiding the eye to where it needs to be in the quickest and most efficient way possible is made for 3D.  3D was considered in every shot.  A fantastic example of this is Martin Scorcese's Hugo.  I realize a lot of folks didn't care for the narrative, but bare with me on the composition.  Martin Scorcese used all the tricks out of Art Composition 101 on leading the eye with this movie and it was very successful.  The easiest ways to guide the eye are with contrast (both color and tonal), patterns, and lines, and (in cinema) motion

Here is an example of contrast being used in multiple ways to keep our eyes on the point of focus,  Sacha Baron Cohen and Asa Butterfield

Contrast is again used here keeping us centered on the subjects

Your eyes will follow to where lines point, and here we see the books and the station architecture all pointing to our hero, Hugo

Successfully guiding the eye for 3d does not mean the subject must be centered.  Here the motion of gears and cogs distinguishes the left 2/3rds of the screen from the right most 1/3.  In this case we'll focus our attention to the right (also due to color contrast again)

This is only a small sample of composition techniques that Scorcese employs with great effect in the movie.  Look at these advanced techniques before watching the film and you'll be sure to see some more of them used!

So, how can we tie this into 3D Gaming?  And why does 3D have a more natural fit in Gaming than in Movies?  Because in video games, you're almost always looking at where your attention should be, and in most of today's action games, you're even controlling where that center of focus is.

There's no need for composition tricks to tell you where to look.  You're focusing on what interests you, leaving plenty of space for the environment to move into the foreground or fall away to the background.

The illusion is halfway there in most of today's First Person Shooter games, where your weapon draws out of focus into the foreground when looking down the iron sights.

Killzone 3 

A games HUD (Heads Up Display) can work even better.  When done properly it stays out of focus while looking at the environment and is crisp when you look at it.

Who doesn't want to feel a little more like Iron Man?
Crysis 2 HUD seen on the lower left and right floats closer to you than the environment
Left stick camera control is extremely satisfying in 3rd person Hand to Hand combat.  In many ways it best highlights the detailed 3D models you're spending hours controlling.  It makes them feel so real, so tactile.  As if your television isn't a few inches thick, but that it's a window that stretches as far as the environment in your game.

The 3D models in Assassin's Creed 3 can practically be plucked from the screen 

Slowly turn the camera while fighting in Uncharted 3 in 3D to see the blaze in all it's glory and the incredible animations bringing these 3D models to life

Driving games reach new heights in simulation where turns and distances are more easily distinguished.

Gran Turismo 5

In closing, 3D is here to stay.  Adoption will pick up the pace as content is more readily available, prices drop, and technology advances.  Maybe I'm early.  Maybe glasses-less home 3D is what's needed to bring things to the masses, but in whatever way it's delivered, the content will continue to come.

Prometheus was a remarkable example of shooting a movie for 3D while being more subtle about the composition "tricks"

Film makers are getting better and better at composing their shots in 3D.  Next Gen Systems will likely have native 3D capabilities (fingers crossed that the rumored comments from Sony being "Sony's goal, according to information from internal meetings, is for the PS4 to be powerful enough to run games at 1080p at 60 frames per second in 3D without any problems").

It only makes sense that a more accurate representation of space and distance aids to immerse the gamer who is navigating a 3D space.  And with most games painstakingly modeling their characters and environments as 3D objects, 3D is hands down the best way to view those objects and bring them to life.  Playing Uncharted 3 and Killzone 3 in 3D was a blast and I'm eager for more games coming out both on current gen systems and next generation.

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