Jim Cameron was featured by YAHOO! At NAB SHOW 2011, and while I think he gave the right message about the importance of stereoscopic 3D gaming, he’s given too kind a reprieve to the 3D display industry.
"Video games are going to be the drivers, but they haven't done so today because the cycle creation has lagged behind…The consumer electronics companies introduced these screens last year, so we're a year into this and it takes 18 months to two years to author a high quality video game. So you're going to see a stampede of video games and then that, in turn, is just going to catalyze more broad scale adoption in the home of these big 3D screens." - James Cameron, NAB SHOW 2011
With respect to Cameron’s unmatched enthusiasm, expertise, and success in 3D movies, I don’t think he is expressing the true politics of stereoscopic 3D gaming and the real hurdles that have held this industry back.
It’s ironic that Cameron’s well received words were at NAB SHOW 2011, because when I was the sole speaker about stereoscopic 3D gaming at the same show in 2009, I was practically laughed off the stage! Between the snide remarks about poor Nvidia support and fellow panelists describing gamers as “climbing under the table with wire strippers and wire nuts”, it was clear that the 3D industry had no clue just how important video games or their customers would become for their product sales. I will take it further than that, nobody wanted to know how important gaming would become – even for 3D movies.
For example, I talked about a company demo I saw of a 3D Blu-Ray running on a traditional player without any firmware updates or hardware changes. It was a bit rough and wasn’t as good as the real deal, but it worked. This was when the 3D Blu-Ray standard wasn’t invented yet, so this was a huge technological breakthrough! The same company had a streaming player for 3D movies on console and PC. When I discussed their technologies on the panel, they were accused of being “Snake Oil Salesmen”, and that I was somehow being naive for discussing it. Those “Snake Oil Salesmen” are NEXT3D, and they later earned investment from Turner Broadcasting. Their co-founder is D.J. Roller - Jim Cameron’s cinematographer for Titanic 3D. Reflecting back at that panel, I regret not sharing this bit of information.
Two years have gone by since, and we live in an even more digital world. 3D Blu-Ray will likely get outshined by digital downloads on console, gamers need not even buy a 3D Blu-Ray if they already own a Sony PS3 (with some caveats), and there is no stronger viral marketing opportunity on the Internet than stereoscopic 3D video games. Movies have websites, video games have communities.
Despite these advantages, the display makers made a conscious choice to ignore stereoscopic 3D gaming, and they are paying for it dearly. For example, even though Sony had a competitive advantage of owning their own console and game studios, there was nothing preventing other display makers from co-marketing with third party game developers directly. There still isn’t.
I remember talking to a senior marketing person for one of the largest 3D manufacturers in the world after he paid a visit to an S3DGA meeting. Nervously, he said “we have no 3D gaming strategy, and we don’t know what to do.” That was the last I saw of him, and they still don’t have a 3D gaming strategy as far as I can tell. It’s crazy, because they are big fans of Jeffrey Katzenberg who is regularly quoted as saying that “video games will drive 3D to the home” (forward to time index 17:27 for a fun exchange with Katzenberg).
It’s frustrating, because this hands-off-the-wheel mentality has crippled the 3D industry in more ways than one. Most display makers don’t have licensing rights to show 3D video games at retail, the display technology is limited to 720P for 3D video games compared to 1080P for 3D movies on current HDMI 1.4 connections, and the game developers run the risk of putting out mediocre 3D content because their education needs have been completely ignored or are based on guidelines set by 3D movies.
Fortunately, despite these avoidable setbacks, 3D gaming is doing ok. The HDMI 1.4 standard does work well for console, and the 720P limitation in video games is completely normal even for traditional 2D or non-stereoscopic games on PS3 and XBOX 360. It’s only on PC that this HDMI 720P limitation is of concern. Desktop displays have different connectors and standards, so this limitation is mainly related to 3D HDTVs and projectors based on HDMI 1.4.
By the way, don't mistake marketing for compatibility. While most 3D displays may not have the licensing rights to show 3D video games in stores, the compatibility is there as long as they have HDMI 1.4 connectors.
On the topic of game developer education, iGO3D is an Ontario (Canada) government funded initiative to research and determine best practice guidelines for stereoscopic 3D game development on all platforms without vested interests in specific technologies. In addition to several universities, game developers attached to this include Electronic Arts, Digital Extremes, Big Blue Bubble, Bedlam Games, and more.
While this is by no stretch an indication of direct collaboration, we are starting to see competing technology enablers share presentation space to talk about 3D gaming and the direction they are headed. For example, at the upcoming OCE Discovery conference, the stage will be shared by AMD, Nvidia, Dynamic Digital Depth, Sony, Autodesk, and more.
3D manufacturers are also taking a serious look at the Connected TV in 3D. For example, at CES 2011, Panasonic announced a strategic partnership with Gameloft to offer 3D video games without the need for a traditional console. This is a similar idea to OnLive which also hinted at eventually offering stereoscopic 3D video games online.
While Cameron is 100% correct about the slew of 3D video games coming down the pipe for console, PC, and mobile, consumers want quality more than quantity. I'm certain work still needs to be done in this area - the same way 3D film had to (and continues to go through) a production learning curve. Time will tell!
I will finish off by saying that while I’m appreciative of Cameron’s enthusiasm for 3D gaming, we could have been miles further if the industry gave stereoscopic 3D gaming and video game customers the attention they deserved two years ago. The industry’s hands-off approach has created a divided environment which has handicapped product sales and confused the customer. PC and console technology enablers have little in common as far as 3D visual expectations are concerned, and video game relationships are often handled privately. This has artificially slowed content growth by either scaring game developers away, or creating inconsistent 3D gaming results from one solution to the next. This has nothing to do with production cycles for video games as Cameron suggested.
To work, our industry needs to adopt a paradigm shift. We can no longer throw money at comfort food like 3D movies and broadcasting, and hope that 3D video games will develop on their own. They will, but a more direct approach will be needed for them to form into the effective display-selling content source they have the potential to be. This market has to be carefully and responsibly nurtured in a cooperative manner.