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Depth Charges

3D displays promise an exciting future, but the present is more sobering.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Published as part of our sister-site' widely-read weekly newsletter, the Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to newsletter subscribers.

No entertainment industry is quite so focused on technology as videogames are. Other media happily adopt new technologies in their production processes, of course, but from the consumer perspective they remain fairly stable, technologically.

Music switches media every decade or two, but remains broadly the same experience - the last really big innovation was probably stereo. Movies and television fiddle with distribution methods, but essentially continue to provide the same type of content - the switch to colour, and the more recent switch to HD, rank alongside surround sound as the big changes in the actual content. As for books, e-ink displays probably represent the only really important change in technology there since Gutenberg started racking out copies of the Bible.

Videogames are the ardent gadget fanboys of the bunch - the technophile, neophile medium, always keen to embrace everything new that comes along. Each generation of hardware changes the experience, altering not only the quality of the display but also what can be displayed. New control mechanisms radically upset preconceived notions of interactivity. The rise of broadband swings an essentially solitary form of entertainment into a massively social one.

It's a state of flux which is chaotic and blindingly fast compared to other forms of media - it's no wonder movie and TV people so often make a total mess of dipping their toe into the waters of videogames. Movie makers work on long schedules with confidence that their films will reach the same audience, with broadly the same expectations, in the same way as they did with the previous production. Successful game producers, on the other hand, must be experts in hitting a fast-moving target at a hundred paces.

The latest technological advance to create a huge stir in the games industry is 3D - more specifically, "real" 3D, display technology which creates an illusion of depth for the viewer. After various abortive experiments with utterly awful coloured 3D glasses, movie-makers abandoned 3D decades ago - but have recently returned to the idea, encouraged by the arrival of digital projectors in cinemas which can create far more convincing, vivid 3D effects.

Game producers, unsurprisingly, are intrigued, and several companies - British developer Blitz being perhaps the most notable - are presently showing off demonstrations of 3D game technology. Encouraging noises are being made. Insiders happily report being blown away by the demos. The future, it seems, is on its way.

There are a couple of problems, however, with the idea of 3D displays - not mortal problems, but certainly enough to ensure that this new wave of technology will remain a curiosity, rather than a mainstream prospect, for several years.

The most obvious problem is this. 3D works fairly well in your local cinema at the moment, but that's because your local cinema has quietly upgraded its projection technology (at enormous cost) in order to accommodate the new 3D movies. Cinemas made this investment because they know that this will provide them with a unique selling point in the coming years. The 3D experience they provide can't be replicated easily in the home. Most people won't be getting 3D off DVD or Blu-ray, let alone off pirated downloads, which will drive people out to the cinema to watch movies instead.

This gamble on the part of the cinemas is based on the simple fact that the vast majority of current televisions - even very modern ones - simply aren't capable of displaying convincing 3D images, while the majority of media formats and players aren't capable of storing and rendering those images.