June 24, 2010

The Best 3-D Experience I Ever Had

I still own two film cameras. One is a Mamiya medium format camera. The other is a 1950 Stereo Realist 35mm 3-D camera. I’ve been creating and consuming 3-D content since I was young, using every technique I could learn about, including some that most people have never seen. I’m a proponent of 3-D movies in theory, but am disappointed with most of the movies I’ve seen in the format’s current resurgence. I have so many thoughts on the matter — including why I’m fascinated by 3-D, where I’d like to see it go from here, and what I think of Roger Ebert’s (and others’) anti-3-D stance — that I’ve considered purging them all in one giant post. This is not that post.

This post is just about the single best 3-D entertainment experience I ever had. I enjoyed it in the comfort of my own home, and it didn’t cost very much money. After watching the home video game console companies show off their 3-D games at last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, I thought I’d write about it, because my best 3-D experience was with 3-D gaming.

Ten years ago, I purchased a pair of Elsa Revelator 3-D Glasses for the PC. It cost me $34. The glasses connected to the computer with a thin wire that ran to a pass-through plug between the graphics card and the monitor. Combined with special software, it could turn any existing hardware-accelerated game into a true 3D experience using active shutter technology.

A quick definition of active shutter technology: an liquid crystal lens over each eye flickers between clear and opaque in sync with images onscreen that are rendered slightly offset for each eye. As long as the monitor refreshes quickly enough, the flicker is not noticeable, although the screen appears a bit dim. Since each eye only sees images rendered for one perspective, the brain perceives the image as 3-D.

The first game I played in 3-D was Tomb Raider (natch). The border of my monitor suddenly became a window, and I was looking into Lara Croft’s world. She became a fully rounded Barbie-sized figure running around a tiny landscape, firing at enemies. It was amazing. There were some glitches with the technology — occasional flashes of light when the glasses would lose sync with the monitor, and odd 3-D artifacts where ripples in a pond were supposed to refract light — but I could see the potential in 3-D gaming already.

The glasses came packaged with a demo version of a game I’d never heard of called “Thief 2.” This was the game that blew me away.

Unlike Tomb Raider, where you see your character on screen, Thief 2 is played in first person perspective. Your character is a thief and, unlike most other games, you don’t just run around shooting enemies as quickly as you can. The idea is to be sneaky. You hide in the shadows, avoid being seen, and creep around villages and castles to complete each level.

I sat in front of the computer with 3-D glasses on and room lights off. I wore headphones for total immersion, and the game used sound to great effect. My character’s footsteps were often the only sounds I heard as I snuck around the virtual landscape. But if I listened carefully, I could hear when a guard was coming so I could make sure I wouldn’t be caught. In 3-D, the hallways and streets had depth. Buildings had form. It really felt like I was there, sneaking around. It felt almost real.

Here’s a sample of gameplay:

I purchased the full version of the game and played it from start to finish over the next couple weeks. I’m not that much of a gamer, but I’d never had a gaming experience that made my heart race so much, that really transported me into the game world. I’ve played virtual reality games with headgear-mounted goggles and motion tracking, but this was so much better.

I still remember clearly a level late in the game where I had to walk across a rafter high above the ground. When I looked down, I could actually see the distance I would fall to the floor below if I slipped. In 2-D, the thin beam of wood I was standing on would have been on the same plane as everything else on the screen. But this felt like a real beam of wood high above a real floor. I’d never been so nervous playing a game as I was in that moment.

I wanted to tell everyone to get these glasses. Why on Earth would anyone play games the old flat way? This is how games should be played! This should be mainstream! Why weren’t the video game consoles of the time making games that would work with the same technology?

The answer, in part, is that standard televisions didn’t have a high enough refresh rate to make the experience worthwhile. A slower refresh rate makes the flickering of active shutter glasses noticeable, which is very unpleasant. So 3-D games in home consoles would have to wait.

And now they’re coming. New TVs have high refresh rates, and console makers are taking advantage of that. The 3-D glasses no longer need to be tethered by a thin wire. They stay in sync wirelessly. But now that the technology has caught up, I’m not so sure everyone else will have the same amazing experience I had.

When I played Thief 2, I was a bachelor living by myself. I could turn out the lights, sit a couple feet from the screen, and totally immerse myself in the game without anyone caring. I think that’s a big reason why I was so sucked in. With a game console, the TV often sits on the other side of the living room, rather than right in front of your face. At that distance, the depth is a cool effect, but not an all-encompassing experience (unless it’s a very large TV).

I predict that people will respond to 3-D games in a segmented way depending on their circumstances. People who play alone without worrying about being antisocial will become immersed in first person shooters; they will be transported into the world of the game. People who play more socially or further from the screen will benefit from 3-D in a more subtle way; their experience will be similar to getting a new game console that can render graphics more realistically. It will be a cool special effect, but not a whole new way of experiencing a game. With the high cost of today’s wireless 3-D glasses, and the reluctance people may have to sit around wearing dark glasses indoors, I’m not optimistic that 3-D games will be huge any time soon outside the “bachelor” demographic.

Ten years after my experience with Thief 2, I still think of it as a benchmark for what 3-D gaming can be. But perhaps someone will come up with some new and unexpected use of 3-D in video games that will make me realize that Thief 2 was just a beginning, and that my experience ten years ago was the tip of the iceberg.

(I’m excited to see what’s offered for Nintendo’s upcoming 3-D glasses-free handheld console. I suspect that the 3-D screen is too small to really immerse you like I was with Thief 2, but is small enough that it could be used as an effective window into another world. The device is only experienced by one person at a time by design, and I think all these factors could inspire some very creative game experiences.)

Incidentally, while the Elsa Revelator glasses are no longer available, nVidia does sell a similar product (although it’s unfortunately more expensive). But if you’re a PC gamer, I highly recommend you give them a try.


Have you seen head tracking technology?

This is a good explanation of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd3-eiid-Uw

And this is a commercial version: http://www.naturalpoint.com/trackir/

I think it’s a more interesting technology than 3-D, and if they were combined they would probably give the ultimate immersive experience.

You could get these things for what was then the price of one PC game, and after ten years of hardware innovation they cost $200? Given the usual direction of innovation-driven hardware cost this strikes me as retrograde.

I can only assume that people now assume the glasses will be wireless and look like a pair of sexy Oakleys frames, whereas in the past the 3D enthusiast was content with a chunky wire-tethered contraption because *it cost $34* to play Tomb Raider in 3D.

holy crap. i used those glasses ten years ago, too.

every time i hear someone go off about how 3-d gaming is the next big thing, i have to remind them that i played the original half-life in 3-d, ten years ago. and quake 2. it was cool, but…

…dear god, the headaches.

I’ve only seen one demonstrational film in 3D and I couldn’t help but conceive it as flickering. Also, I felt like it didn’t add much to the viewing experience, so imho that whole 3D hype isn’t justified.

If you liked Thief, you should try Assassin’s Creed 2 or later. I never used to play any games except thief, and loved the stealthy, errie quality of it. Assassin’s creed doesn’t use sound as a give away, but otherwise is an awesome gameto try if Thief was your thing. A lot more intelligent stealth than killing. :)