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PlayStation 3D

Today MotorStorm, tomorrow the Holodeck?

This is it. It's happening. Having had a strong interest in stereoscopic 3D pretty much since the Digital Foundry blog launched, today is the day I'm finally going to be able to try my hand at the first mainstream adoption of the technology: Sony's fledgling stereoscopic system for PlayStation 3.

I'm under no illusions that this is going to become a mass-market game-changer for the Sony console or anything, but I am intrigued by the potential of the technology. While its short-term impact is going to be limited, in the long term I'm convinced that proper stereoscopic vision is the future of the television set.

Just as HDTVs are replacing the old CRT and are slowly becoming the norm, so - in the fullness of time - will 3D TVs replace them. In these early days the glasses are something of a hindrance, but solutions are already in progress to refine this element of the technology and eventually remove it entirely.

Of course, right now it is early days, but one thing is clear: it is videogaming that will be at the forefront of this technology, and our favourite pastime is arguably best-placed to get the most out of the new displays. Immersion can only benefit immensely from a strong interactive element, and the various technologies surrounding today's games consoles, when combined with stereo 3D, make for some mouth-watering possibilities. Head-tracking, motion control, 3D...

It's all happening for PlayStation 3 this year.

Few know this better than Simon Benson, senior development manager at Sony Europe, and Ian Bickerstaff, senior programmer. Both are located at Evolution Studios in the northwest of England, and have been quietly working on the new technology for over two years. Hailing from British Aerospace, these gentlemen were implementing full stereo 3D a full 12 years ago on hugely expensive bespoke solutions.

"There's a terrible picture of us from 1997 wearing liquid crystal shutter glasses, viewing a 120Hz 3D image," Bickerstaff tells Digital Foundry. "It was done using a projector costing £50,000 to £60,000, maybe more. The point is that all this technology has been around for ages but cost millions and millions of pounds in the simulation industry. It is interesting that the simulation industry was prepared to pay that to have 3D because of the benefits but it's just amazing to me that suddenly this is going to be available as a consumer item in people's living rooms."

Lights are dimmed and the requisite 3D glasses are handed out. Sony recently revealed that it has worked with 3D specialists RealD on the core tech, and there are RealD logos on the specs, so I suspect that these prototype glasses aren't a million miles away from the final product.

Active shutter glasses like these are a fairly basic but quite effective technology. The screen refreshes at 120 frames per second, but the glasses turn this into a 3D image by obscuring one eye and only letting the image on the display hit the other. The frame on-screen changes, and the effect on the glasses reverses, allowing the subsequent frame through to the other eye.

This can cause flicker in certain cases, but in most of the demonstrations it proved to be remarkably effective. What it does mean however is that the glasses are battery-powered, and sync with the display via an IR link. The glasses feel solid and substantial, but still relatively lightweight and easily wearable. Already sporting prescription specs myself, the goggles sat in front of my lenses: a bit cumbersome but I soon got used to it.

In terms of the actual video demonstations, I was a little concerned about the faithfulness of the captures here to the actual gameplay: PS3's abilities to play back bandwidth-sapping video at dense pixel formats is something I have to tackle periodically when working on PS3-specific video projects and dropped frames and general jerkiness are difficult to eliminate.

This was borne out by the performance of some of the videos I saw: some looked rather choppy - even Super Stardust HD, which was super-smooth during actual gameplay. It's worth pointing out that these vids were running off the XMB, and were in no way indicative of final Blu-ray 3D performance which is set for implementation via its own specific firmware update.

Regardless, a large selection of wares are on display here: namely MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, WipEout HD/Fury, Killzone 2, Super Stardust HD and Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. Showing for the first time (to the best of my knowledge) are LittleBigPlanet and MLB: The Show. Impressions are mostly positive, although WipEout appears to be running at a lower frame-rate than the original game (almost certainly down to the video encoding, I expect the actual code to be 60FPS), whereas GT5 Prologue is silky smooth and absolutely stunning: cars feel like 3D objects, scenery looking crisp and real.

While Polyphony has a propensity to output rendered videos derived from game assets in the GT engine, this is assuredly in-game and from a technical sense the standout video of the bunch, featuring plenty of gameplay from both internal and external views plus some replay footage. Probably the most impressive sense of immersion is gleaned from the cockpit view - your on-screen hands on the wheel are clearly realised 3D objects right in front of you, the A-pillars are set further back, exactly as you would expect. The view outside has a subtle, real depth.

"Driving really is a massive area of interest for 3D and you can really see it giving you an 'in-car feeling' owing to the immersion," Benson says. "It makes sense really and GT really shows what's possible."

Next up, a hugely welcome return for LittleBigPlanet. Initial comments on the presentation were published on Eurogamer earlier in the week. But to reiterate the point, this is an intriguing example of how stereoscopic viewpoints have an obvious advantage over the traditional 2D look in certain game styles.

"This shows that across all sorts of genres, 3D can work," says Benson. "Apart from the fact that you get this nice image with a lovely bit of depth, the game itself has a depth mechanic... If you've played LittleBigPlanet and you're anything like me, you've probably fallen off a cliff every now and again thinking, 'well I thought I was on the bridge there'.

"Obviously the depth perception lets you understand far better which layer you're actually on. So you can judge that far better, plus some of the other benefits... when you're dressing the avatar it's more interesting to see it in 3D."

Benson also puts forth another interesting use for the technology - an enhanced view of the content-creation interface.

"Building something with stereoscopic vision... you're putting the thing together in front of you," he says enthusiastically. "Traditionally you have to rely a lot more on grids and revolving cameras to help people understand where they've actually put something.

"In the same way, when we're making 3D models for games, making a building or something... our artists need to spin it around, manipulate it on-screen to know how to build it properly. When you've got stereoscopic vision, that becomes far easier - you just see it before you. You can see how big something is relative to something else. It's not a little thing really close, or a big thing far away. I can understand where it is spatially because I can perceive that with stereoscopic vision. It helps the creation process.