3-D TV: Is Gaming The In-Home Priority?
One of the highlights of my recent trip to the Society of Information Displays conference in Seattle, WA was that Sunday night’s dinner with Nikhil Balram. Longtime readers may remember that I interviewed Nikhil for a Voices column that appeared in print in EDN three-plus years ago. More generally, he and I have worked together on a number of occasions over my 13-plus years with EDN and through his tenures with multiple semiconductor and systems companies:
- Genesis Microchip
- National Semiconductor, and
And every time we get together, we can’t resist talking about lots of tech stuff. I very much appreciate Nikhil’s perspective as a long-time and in-depth industry observer and participant.
One notable discussion topic this time was 3-D displays, which I knew I’d be hearing lots about at the show the subsequent two days. He hadn’t yet seen my recent cover story on the topic, so I gave him a quick rundown on the writeup highlights. Given his longstanding passion for advancements in displays, graphics, still and video imaging, and the like, I expected a more enthusiastic perspective from him than I ended up getting. Listening to Nikhil’s opinions doesn’t significantly mute my own enthusiasm for 3-D TVs’ potential in the living room, but it’s encouraged me to consider other motivations beyond movie- and sports-watching for such a purchase.
Some of Nikhil’s concerns equate with those I’d already brought up both in my print piece and in associated blog addendums; specifically the various issues related to passive polarizer and (especially) active shutter glasses. Expense (both initial and addition/replacement), discomfort, sanitary worries, nausea and other occasionally encountered extended-use symptoms, and incompatibilities between various vendors were all issues on which we agreed. But another glasses-related issue that he mentioned, obvious in retrospect, was one which I’d admittedly under-estimated even though I’d discussed it in the context of covering other technologies in the past.
Nikhil pointed out that watching television in the home nowadays is rarely if ever a single-task experience. At minimum, folks are regularly looking at and talking to each other throughout the movie or other video presentation. Often times, they’re also periodically looking down at iPads, netbooks or other computing and communications devices to research actor/actress vital statistics on iMDB, or for other multi-tasking reasons. They’re sometimes moving around from seat to seat. And more generally, they’re milling about in the background (in the kitchen, around the bar or food table, etc) often not even looking at the TV. None of these usage scenarios is particularly amenable to donning glasses, just as none of the moving-around scenarios was palatable to surround-sound opportunities I’ve discussed before.
But what about video game playing? In this case, whether single- or multi-player, the attention is focused solely (and intensely, to boot) on the screen ahead. If the prior statement sounds familiar, it’s because it’s reminiscent of the argument I made in late April regarding the viability of small-format auto-stereoscopic displays such as the one Nintendo may unveil for the 3DS in its E3 Conference presentation tomorrow morning. There, like here, the viewing position (therefore angle) is fixed, as is the attention on the display. And don’t underestimate gamers’ abilities to rationalize large, ongoing investments in gear and content alike, in order to satiate their habits.
Any of you who’ve ever experienced 3-D gaming in conjunction with a 3-D display, whether glasses-inclusive or glasses-free, will I think concur with my opinion as to its immersiveness and overall impressiveness. It’s a market opportunity that’s been well known for some time; witness the fact that I first covered shutter glasses for gaming almost a decade ago. Back then, refresh rates were so slow as to make the technique (at best) barely palatable; Nvidia owns a fundamental patent, for example, on artificially extending the video blanking interval in order to give both the display and the glasses used to view it adequate time to switch states. But clearly, in the modern era of plasma displays and fast-switching LCDs, such issues are well on the way to being adequately addressed.
And it’s a market opportunity that Sony is clearly aware of, judging from recent actions. Just as the company aspired (with limited to-date success) to use its PlayStation 3 game console as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to get Blu-ray into the living room (as it’d previously succeeded in doing to a much larger degree with the PS2 and DVD), Sony seems to be hoping that the PS3 will also help the company sell a lot of 3-D TVs. Witness, on the eve of E3 and in conjunction with the unveiling of a suite of new 3-D displays, Sony’s announcement last Friday that it was formally releasing its first four 3-D TV-enhanced PS3 titles:
- Motor Storm Pacific Rift
- Super Stardust, and
- Wipeout HD
Conversely, I don’t expect Nintendo to take the current-generation Wii down this particular path, given that the fiscally focused console can’t even generation high-definition images, far from having the horsepower to sequentially render right- and left-eye-targeted views of each frame. But 3-D TV-cognizant gaming is a market opportunity that, bafflingly, Microsoft so far seems content to disregard. I intentionally delayed the publication of this particular post until after the company’s E3-kickoff presentation earlier this morning, under the assumption that the Microsoft would unveil at least the broad strokes of its 3-D TV plans. I walked away from my liveblog-monitoring session disappointed.
Granted, I don’t at all underestimate the incremental system resources demanded by the Kinect (formerly Project Natal) motion sensing and control peripheral. But unless I’ve completely misunderstood the Xbox 360 system architecture, the bulk of that burden should be shouldered by the CPU in combination with additional consumed system memory. Conversely, once the polygons and textures that make up a particular frame are determined, the job of rendering them and, in the case of 3-D TV, rendering perspective-accurate distinct right- and left-eye views of that frame falls to the GPU.
Admittedly, there may need to be some frame resolution and frame rate degradation in comparison to a traditional display-targeted title, along with quality down-throttling, but I can’t believe that the Xbox 360 can’t comprehend 3-D TVs’ needs. Maybe the answer’s as simple as the fact that Microsoft doesn’t also sell televisions (or for that matter own a movie studio), so 3-D support isn’t as critical to its corporate bottom line as is the case with Sony. Nonetheless, I wonder if Microsoft realizes that after nearly five straight years of pummeling Sony in this particular generation of the console wars, it’s let a still-formidable competitor off the ropes and given it a counterpunch opportunity.