3D is one of the buzz words around the media industry, lead by the film industry, the big broadcasters are slowly starting to come on board as 3D TV sets become more affordable. In the UK Sky is regularly showing live sports events in 3D and has recently followed that with movies, entertainment and documentaries all in 3D. I’ve worked, until recently, leading a research team who’s remit was the ‘connected home’ focussing mainly on media & entertainment provision to the home. Clearly 3D is one of the topics on the agenda here so I’d like to hope I can claim to know a little about it.
3D works, very basically, by tricking your brain into thinking a projection has got depth to it. In years gone by this was done through those hideous red and green tinted glasses. Unsurprisingly these never really took off. Fast forward a decade or two and you have two prominent types of 3D viewing sets available to consumers, those using passive techniques, using inexpensive ‘passive’ polarised lenses which is the one your probably more familiar with from cinemas, or the active alternative which utilises battery operated shutters in the lenses which fire faster than the eye can detect (and cost a fortune). It is possible to get a 3D viewing experience without glasses, I’ve seen and used a TV set which gives you 3D but these give no where near the depth of the alternatives which use glasses and there are a few oddities caused by the technology which mean at certain angles you can’t see a picture.
I firmly believe that 3D has a place in entertainment, but until it’s without glasses, it’ll remain pretty niche, this will happen, but it’ll clearly take time. I can however see certain specialist areas taking advantage of 3D technology, gaming being one of those areas. Before I go into gaming specifically, I think it’s help to make a few observations about 3D technology, and point out a few pet hates.
Firstly, I’m sceptical that the ‘customer’ is currently at the heart of the drive behind 3D, think of the one thing which terrifies the movie industry…. have you got it yet?… that's right, piracy. Now next time you go watch a 3D film, take the glasses off and take a look, blurry isn’t it? So anyone stood there with a conventional camcorder will get the same. Even if you get a physical disc with a 3D film on, you’d have a hard time copying it (and finding anyone with a 3D TV to watch it); this will become easier over time, but currently it’s a great way of foiling the pirates.
My second complaint is the seemingly mandatory requirement for all films to be in 3D regardless of whether it adds anything to the experience (and the additional 3D ‘tax’ added to the already extortionate price of a cinema ticket). Yes there are some great 3D films, Avatar and, ahem, Piranha 3D…. ok, so perhaps just Avatar, but there are also some absolutely pointless 3D additions where 3D has been added as an afterthought for the simple reason of adding 20% extra to the entry fee. Clash of the Titans is one such film, there’s literally one 3D effect, a coin toss, in the whole film, which is completely and utterly pointless. Similarly with football (soccer to all you American types), I’m lucky enough to have a local boozer (bar to you American types..) which has a 3D TV and regularly shows 3D footy, this TV happens to be situated in between two normal TV’s so, purely by luck, the viewer gets a stark comparison of the ‘normal’ versus the 3D coverage, and I’ve got to say the 2D version is far better! More often than not, when you’re getting a replay of a crucial piece of gameplay, or some insightful analysis of the game on the 2D broadcast, the 3D TV is showing some non-descript tackle which happened by the corner flag for the sixth time because it ‘looks good’ in 3D; the coverage has lost the whole point of why people watch football or films – the entertainment of the subject matter, not the 3D experience, yes 3D can compliment that experience, but it shouldn’t be the focal point; until the media industry ‘grows up’ and realise this 3D is destined to be niche. This is really exemplified by the number of punters in my local who ditch the 3D glasses after a game or two and revert to watching the 2D broadcast (and I realise my American reader’s head has probably now exploded with the amount of colloquialisms I’ve used in this last paragraph).
So, “what's this got to do with WOW then?” I hear you say…. well just this; is WOW something which is suited to 3D? on balance, I think it could be, you’re view of the world is centred around a focal point (your character) with players, monsters and all of the other ‘stuff’ spanning spanning out from there. Giving a depth to instances, for example, could really enhance gameplay. That is providing its used to enhance gameplay, and not replace it; we’ve already seen ‘uber’ graphics replace most of the actual gameplay time and time again as gaming power has improved over the years. I’d almost be excited about the prospect of 3D in WOW if the cynic inside me didn’t keep telling me that it would lead to a subscription hike (well 3D is more difficult you know, so cost more! yadda yadda yadda) and that because it’s more difficult to develop would almost certainly lead to less content.
The thing about 3D which, in my experience, has really got the design geeks going isn’t the content at all, it’s the possibilities it exposes in the user interface design. Any of you who’ve ever seen Top Gun will know what a heads up display or HUD is, imagine the possibilities for your UI if you had multiple layers unfolding before your eyes in the same manor a fighter pilot has with their HUD. Even better if you’re able to interact with that display on a 3D level (clearly that's a long way off).
Recently I posted about the possibility of truly mobile gaming, one of the barriers to using a mobile for WOW which I identified was the screen space available. If you suddenly have the ability to layer your UI in 3D it suddenly opens up a whole host of possibilities.
Clearly there's a long way to go before 3D gaming comes to the masses, the Nintendo DS already manages it (kind of) by making use of it’s dual display, so there’s clearly already some development going on in the area. But how soon before we get a 3D WOW experience? your guess is as good as mine, I’d wager it’ll be later rather than sooner.