Onto the next demo and a chance to check out the 3D work done by Housemarque on the always-brilliant Super Stardust HD. I had the opportunity to pitch a few questions to the developer last week, and while I was aware of the technical achievement, actually seeing the game in action and playing it is quite something else.
"Super Stardust HD brings a really interesting mechanic to the table... de-cluttering, if you like," muses Benson. "When the asteroids rain down, there is a lot of chaos. The stereoscopic vision actually allows you to focus in on your plane of interest, if you like. When things are above you, you actually know exactly what depth they are at. You know what you can safely fly under. A lot of people who've seen this in 3D for the first time say, 'wow, I didn't realise the planet was round'. They didn't actually know the game had so much form to it."
What most impresses me about the demo is the fact that there isn't any 3D gimmickry going on here. The impression is simply that this is how the game should really look. The planet and the grid are spheres with depth.
Super Stardust HD is a game with its own "3D wow" moments - when a huge asteroid descends down into the planet's atmosphere, it's a stereoscopic event that you can't help but be impressed by. Combine this with the vast array of particles and objects, all perfectly rendered in true 3D, and it's a stunning statement of intent from Sony on what this system can actually do.
"Really it's just a stereoscopic setting that we've applied that matches the original game," says Ian Bickerstaff. "It's a funny formula you've got to do with convergence and inter-axial placement of the camera and what the content is. We go round and round in circles with that until we get it right. With Super Stardust, we're leaving the game as it is and just playing with the 3D settings."
The result is quite extraordinary with just one issue: there's a noticeable latency in the controls that was never present in the original Super Stardust HD, and it's an obvious and impactful issue. It should be pointed out that this is a game that has been re-engineered into a new version of Housemarque's engine, so it's not in any way a complete, ready-to-ship product. The 3D team also speculate that the pre-production kit may be a factor, rather than the game itself.
"It may be related to the prototype television. In terms of the coding of the game, there should be no latency issues," assures Ian Bickerstaff. "Without going into the gory details, there are a lot of issues with this pre-production television.
"Whenever we mentioned them to Japan they'd just say that it's not final and won't be in the consumer television. This is just speculation, I don't know: sometimes you get a low-latency game mode in the television and it may just be not active. Here's the television menu... [a Bravia XMB with a bewildering amount of Japanese text materialises on-screen]... enjoy!"
The lag doesn't feel as pronounced in MotorStorm but they are entirely unlike gameplay experiences, running at different frame-rates. The team seems confident it won't be an issue, but I wonder at the amount of processing the TV needs to carry out. A single 60Hz frame is being cut into two 720p images and both are being scaled, incurring more processing.
I wonder whether moving to 960x1080 or even 1920x540 for each frame and packing them into a conventional 1080p image might be a more elegant solution: at least the display would only be required to scale in one axis.
"We're just working within the confines of the SDK that's supplied to us," replies Benson.
Assuming the kinks are worked out of the system, the potential of what Sony is doing here is quite phenomenal, more so when you factor in the other technologies currently being worked on for the PlayStation 3. Head-tracking is being incorporated into Gran Turismo 5, which combined with stereo 3D could add a whole new dimension to gameplay. Why not peer "into" your screen, and actually look around corners?
"In car design there are immersive walls and there are these things called 'caves' where you have a 3D image on the walls of a cube around you," says Ian Bickerstaff. "It's typically 120Hz shutter glasses with a head-tracking system and a 120Hz projection screen that you can move around and it's constantly adjusting the image based on your viewing position.
"From a viewing point of view you don't notice that you're in a cube at all. It's constantly recalculating the perspective. So that's been done for many, many years now and it's something we've been familiar with in the simulation industry. It's almost bread and butter really. We can't comment on future R&D but you could imagine the way it could go."
It's almost as though the potential for this technology could see the elements of Star Trek's Holodeck concept turning up in your living room in the not-too-distant future. However, slightly sooner is the arrival of the Sony motion controller, reportedly dubbed Arc. We've already seen demos where the wand is used to manipulate objects. The move to stereo 3D adds a whole new dimension to this demo, literally: "an extension of your living room in a sense, with the objects actually there" as Bickerstaff puts it.
"The idea of stereoscopic 3D marrying up with the motion controller is a bit of a no-brainer and you can certainly see applications there that open up plenty of opportunities for gameplay," says Simon Benson. "There are a lot of other things we can achieve too. We're just at the tip of the iceberg with what 3D is going to enable. Once the technology's out there, it'll be interesting to see the things that follow.
"Anything that's out there in the simulation or visualisation industry that's sort of cool and you can imagine the public liking, then you can imagine that rippling through at some point in the future," Bickerstaff adds.
In the here and now though, stereo 3D for PlayStation 3 games is the focus, with the emphasis on retrofitting 3D to the Sony games that would most benefit from it. These guys have been involved in proper, zero-compromise 3D for over a decade and now it's on the cusp of becoming a consumer product. It's fair to say that Benson and Bickerstaff are hugely passionate about the tech and the possibilities, clearly proud in what they have achieved in their work so far across the games demoed today.
"You have two eyes, you can perceive depth, you can measure things, you can judge speed, you can judge distance and proximity. How does this apply to a driving game? You can approach corners and have better braking cues now," enthuses Benson.
"It's been proven in the simulation world, it's why a lot of driving simulators are using 3D technology. It's because you can judge braking better. It's how your eyes work in the real world. Sports games like Major League Baseball - hitting a ball with a bat, catching the ball, they're all depth-related activities. Try that in the real world with one eye shut and it's virtually impossible. We're letting you experience the game in the way that the brain and the body are used to."
Sony refuses to be drawn on the exact game line-up for 3D, and won't divulge any specific release dates. However, the 3D screens themselves are slated for a summer release, and two firmware updates - one for Blu-ray 3D, the other for stereoscopic gaming - are scheduled for launch in the same window. In the meantime, expect a full transcript of our interview with the Sony 3D team some time next week.