3D: It's coming home

Stand by for a revolution in home entertainment. The next generation of video games will take your breath away and blow your mind. Toby Green reports

Duck as bullets fly over your head, hold your breath as oncoming traffic swerves past you, and feel like a rock star as adoring fans surround you and your band – all this, while you're sitting comfortably in your lsitting room, thanks to the a new world of 3D gaming.

Think of 3D entertainment, and flimsy cardboard glasses and dire film sequels (Jaws 3D – tagline "The Third Dimension is Terror") will most likely come to mind. Even now, with the success of 3D screenings of mainstream movies like The Dark Knight and Watchmen, and nearly 80 years after the release of the first 3D feature film, the technology is limited to cinemas that have been specially adapted, an expensive process.

But our front rooms are set to be the place where 3D comes to the masses, in the form of video games that amaze, delight and terrify, and this entertainment revolution is already underway. One company that is manning the barricades is Criterion Games, which designed its driving title, Burnout Paradise, to work on a new 3D system created by graphics card giants Nvidia.

Doug McConkey, Criterion's marketing manager, is thrilled with the ultra-realism of the result. "It looks absolutely fantastic. When I look into the screen, I try and pick stuff up," he says. "It really takes you aback – you're peering into the screen, and trying to work out how the hell it's happening."

A survey of more than 300 gaming professionals, conducted by Gamesindustry.biz earlier this year, saw 3D gaming come top as the most anticipated new technology arriving in 2009. Matt Martin, the editor of the site, believes that the new generation of 3D technology differs in vital ways from before, giving it a better chance of sticking around.

"3D comes around every 12 or 15 years, and it's a little bit naff and gimmicky," he says. "This time, I hope it won't be like that. Gaming offers a truer 3D experience and the technology is a lot further along – you don't have to sit there in stupid coloured glasses and get a headache after half an hour."

Gamers eager to play their favourite titles in the third dimension don't have long to wait, as Nvidia are set to release their GeForce 3D Vision system in the UK this month. It promises to turn hundreds of existing PC games into stereoscopic 3D, a technique of producing an image whereas each eye is shown something slightly different and your brain then combines the two, creating the illusion of depth.

The key to Nvidia's system is its wireless glasses, which have LCD lenses that can flick between transparent and black. These "shutters" are then turned on and off very quickly and alternately between the eyes. As a result, when the glasses are synced with the screen the visuals on the screen – which look blurry to the naked eye – leap out.

For less than £400, gamers with a suitable Nvidia graphics card receive everything they need – including a compatible monitor – to go 3D. The company claims that more than 350 games work with the system, with Burnout Paradise being one of them. Although the system enables many already-released games to be played in three dimensions, Criterion Games worked with Nvidia during the making of Burnout Paradise to optimise the effect.

"When Nvidia mentioned this 3D technology, we thought 'Ok, that sounds like it's going to be rubbish, but thanks for letting us know'," admits McConkey. Despite his initial reservations, he is now a total convert, and believes that the technology is more than just a fad: "I think that it will appeal to discerning gamers to start with," he says. "But as people make more use of it in games, to the point that playing in 3D is immersive, if you don't have 3D then it removes half the experience. People will think 'to hell with it, it really does make the difference'."

Other companies are hot on the heels of Nvidia. The video game tie-in of James Cameron's new 3D movie Avatar will, it's believed, also be in three dimensions, while there has been speculation that Sony will introduce stereoscopic 3D for the PlayStation 3 later this year. UK-based Blitz Games Studios has also been working on its own 3D technology. Called BlitzTech, it will soon be seen in action on their forthcoming beat-em-up Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao, and will bring 3D gaming to consoles. Andrew Oliver, chief technical officer and co-founder of Blitz Games Studios, thinks that we're seeing a breakthrough for 3D gaming because it finally works. "There's no loss of colour, no detraction from the picture quality, just added depth and added immersion and a great sense of reality," he says. "It takes gaming to a new level."

Like Nvidia's creation, Blitz's system will require a 3D-compatible monitor or TV as well as special glasses, but Oliver says there are vital differences. "Nvidia's technique is clever because it can retro-fit games to display in 3D, but because the games weren't designed to be displayed in 3D, they don't look as good as our solution," says Oliver. "Ours is very much a plug-and-play game to put in a Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, connect it to a 3D display and select 3DTV on the start screen"

And it's not just games developers who are seeing triple. Sky is hoping to get in on the act for its television subscribers, with a new service that requires a special TV but can be accessed through the standard HD box. According to reports, it has also come up with an inexpensive method of filming live action in 3D, which is prohibitively expensive compared to animation. Although there are no dates for when it will be rolled out, Sky has already carried out test recordings of sporting events and the new series of Gladiators.

Yet despite the best efforts of the film and TV industries, Martin believes that the potential for 3D in video games is more exciting than in any other medium: "With movies, it's a novelty where someone points out of the screen or throws an axe at the audience, and that kind of thing wears off quickly. Hopefully, we'll see developers working a third dimension into games, such as using it when creating puzzles." With gaming going 3D, a new dimenision is coming to a screen near you soon.

A view to a thrill: The history of 3D innovation

1922

The Power of Love, believed to be the first feature film to be shown in 3D, is released



1952

America's first colour 3D feature film, Bwana Devil, comes to cinemas. It is the start of what many believe to be the golden era of 3D

1953

Disney produce the first US 3D cartoon, Melody



1954

The Alfred Hitchcock classic, Dial M For Murder, is released in 3D as well as D



1969

The Stewardesses, a softcore sex comedy, is first shown, and goes on to become the most profitable 3D film ever



1983

Hollywood embraces 3D, with numerous films released in the format including Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D and Friday the 13th Part III



2003

Ghosts of the Abyss, an IMAX documentary and James Cameron's first foray into 3D, is released, using a special camera system co-invented by the Titanic director



2005

Chicken Little, the first animated movie filmed in digital 3D, is released

2008

Bono and co. release U2 3D, a concert movie of the band's Vertigo tour that is also shown on IMAX screens

2009

James Cameron's revolutionary 3D film Avatar, costing over $200 million, is finally set to be released in December

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