Video game companies have taken their fierce battle for customers into the realms of the third dimension, with Microsoft challenging Sony head-on by upgrading its Xbox 360 console to support 3D games.
The US technology giant revealed yesterday that it had signed a strategic partnership with the electronics company LG, as it prepares to bring 3D gaming to the Xbox 360.
The memorandum of understanding seems to involve a marketing deal to sell the South Korean group's 3D televisions alongside Xbox 360s that have been upgraded to support 3D gaming. Gamers in the UK will have to control their excitement for now, as plans seem to be limited to the Asian market at the moment. Yet experts believe the rise of 3D in other formats makes the format's expansion more likely. The move follows recent announcements by Sony, which has upgraded its PlayStation 3 console to support 3D, and Nintendo, which is planning to release a 3D version of its popular DS handheld.
Piers Harding-Rolls, an analyst at Screen Digest, said: "Microsoft had been concentrating on its motion-control releases this year, but they are aware Sony has gone into 3D not just in games, but across the whole group. This is its competitive response."
Sony announced in April that it had released an upgrade of the machine's "firmware" which users could download via the internet to tweak its operating system so it can support 3D games when they become available.
It was unclear from yesterday's statement whether gamers would have to buy a new Xbox or whether they would be able to follow PlayStation users and simply download additional firmware.
"The big question is what technology is needed to deliver 3D in the home, and whether consumers are ready to spend on new television sets and glasses," Mr Harding-Rolls continued.
Sony said that the move towards 3D had been driven by cinema and television's move into the area, "and the Avatar effect cannot be underestimated". James Cameron's special-effects blockbuster smashed box office records when it was released last year, prompting a rise in 3D cinema releases and plans to bring the technology into the home.
Gaming in 3D is in its infancy. Sony has several games in development and testing, ready for launch when customers begin buying 3D televisions. The company said: "We're excited about it, but we are treading quite carefully."
Super Stardust in 3D is "demoing internally", Sony said, adding: "The gameplay really benefits. You can see it in racing games. Petrolheads want to be behind the wheel. In D you don't get that sense of depth; 3D brings the experience to life."
He added: "Many games are designed with 3D landscapes; [it's] just [that] so far, they haven't been designed to be watched in 3D." Other games set to be released include Wipeout and MotorStorm.
Nintendo said in March it was to launch the 3DS before the end of March next year. The 3D version of its top-selling handheld device will not need glasses, the company said. Details, however, remain sketchy. Nintendo has remained quiet over whether the Wii will be updated to become 3D-capable. Mr Harding-Rolls said: "Gaming will be one of the key drivers for getting 3D into the home. It is just not there yet."
Microsoft is preparing to release the Natal motion-sensing kit in the UK in October. The gear will be officially launched at the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles next month. Sony also has a rival motion-sensor product in the pipeline.
"There will be lots of news at E3," Mr Harding-Rolls said. "I don't think 3D is as important to Natal. That's the big hope as it gets into areas currently dominated by the Wii."
The race for 3D gaming
* Microsoft has been concentrating heavily on taking the fight to Nintendo's extraordinarily successful Wii console, whose motion-sensor-based games have encouraged a whole new group of players into the market. This culminates in the launch of Project Natal at the E3 expo next month. Yet the group clearly believes it needs to offer an alternative to Sony, and yesterday news from South Korea emerged that the Xbox 360 will support 3D games.
* Nintendo surprised the gaming market in March by revealing that it was developing a hand-held device that could support 3D gaming. Even better, it said, the new technology will not need the silly glasses. "The hand-held needed to be energised," Screen Digest analyst Piers Harding-Rolls said, and Nintendo believes taking it 3D is the way forward. More details are expected at E3.
* Sony stole a march on its rivals last month. It released firmware that allowed PlayStation3 owners to upgrade their machines to support 3D gaming. While there is little content and few consumers have 3D televisions, the company is betting on the popularity of gaming in the format to soar. It is also preparing to release motion-sensor gaming.