Discover how a small team at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is making huge strides in stereoscopic 3D gaming.
Fighter jets and a magic dragon have both played their parts in the development of stereoscopic 3D games on PlayStation 3. They are two contrasting details that neatly bookend the story so far for senior development manager Simon Benson and senior engineer Ian Bickerstaff, the men defining the 3D vision of PlayStation from their office in Runcorn, north-west England.
Flight simulators proved an ideal testing ground for the two programmers as they honed their understanding of 3D technology. Swapping wings for wheels, both Simon and Ian then became involved with simulation work for a leading Formula One team, where they helped to immerse drivers in Grand Prix scenarios.
Yet it was at MotorStorm developer Evolution Studios that their 3D skills would bloom. "Rather sneakily, I had a go at doing a stereoscopic 3D version of MotorStorm Pacific Rift," Ian confides. "We'd done a driving simulator previously which we took to the 2006 AutoSport Show in the UK to gauge whether people would be interested in a 3D racing game. The answer was yes, resoundingly."
Teiyu Goto, the Sony designer behind PS3 and its wireless controllers, thought the work would be the perfect spearhead for the company's pursuit of the 3D goal. "The next thing we know, we're set up as a 3D team," Ian remembers.
"We're gatekeepers as well as cheerleaders," adds Simon. "We try to encourage a situation where 3D sits very well within a game, where development teams are maximising content possibilities.
"You have to ask, 'What benefit does this have?' You've got to give people a reason to want to put on the 3D glasses. If it's just a visual novelty, it'll wear off and that sends the wrong message about stereoscopic 3D. After all, effectively we're all looking at each other in stereoscopic 3D, and we're not going, 'Wow! You're in 3D!'"
So how will studios make the most of the technology in the future? There's the instant wow factor of seeing a screen spring into life, and subtler aspects will form new foundations of the games you'll play. "The bottom line is that because gaming's interactive, giving you visual cues to react to, it's that interaction which grips you," Simon continues.
"Say you're turning left in a stereoscopic 3D racing game. Your whole vision system will accept that what you are seeing is correct. It'll be as if you're looking through the windscreen with your own two eyes to a set of real visual markers. And when it comes to leaping over a hole, you'll instantly understand how deep, big and far away it is because you'll have depth perception."
Play Tumble on PS3 via a stereoscopic 3D TV and you'll see what Simon means. The co-ordination and accurate information you need to pile blocks on top of one another is provided in a very simple, accessible way. "It's in line with what you expect from your own eyes." Shut one eye and stacking simple objects suddenly becomes very tricky.
"As people start understanding the benefits of 3D, some of the prompts that gamers are used to will be switched off, I think," says Simon. "Imagine being on the putting green in Everybody's Golf. A special grid shows you the lie of the land. In stereoscopic 3D you'd be able to see that naturally, and yet you can imagine the effort that goes into making that grid work for people."
As well as drawing you deeper into game worlds, stereoscopic 3D advances could help traditional 2D titles. "You're going to see very different types of experiences as 3D and 2D games diverge," Ian forecasts. "Don't forget as well that there are things that work a lot better in 2D than in 3D due to the limitations of any given display. Sometimes it's better to work within that framework and come up with something absolutely stunning."
Ian believes there's still incredible potential to be exploited, which could yet see augmented reality blur the boundaries between what exists inside and beyond your TV. "How exciting would it be if the edge of the screen was actually part of the game somehow? A collision object, something that the monster grabs hold of to get at you?"
The sense of breaking new ground is clear. Despite the likes of Gran Turismo 5, Killzone 3 and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception shining in stereoscopic 3D along with WipEout HD – "looking great in 3D five years after PS3 launched" – there's still much to learn. Ian thinks the possibilities are still being grasped. "The fact remains that no one has really done this before, and the knowledge we're forming now will help the games of the future.
"We even work with university psychology teams to find out all sorts of interesting things about why we react the way we do to circumstance. We can then pass that on to the development teams."
And the magic dragon? That came via an award Ian received for his presentation at an international conference – one of many specialist events the team are invited to – from Lenny Lipton, often regarded as the father of modern 3D technology and co-writer of the folk song Puff, the Magic Dragon. "It's great to be at that point where you can innovate," he reflects.
Simon agrees. "We'll see the creativity behind games which use 3D features evolve incredibly quickly. This slope of learning will continue ever upward, helping each new 3D game to be even better than the last. There's no doubt that we are on an amazing journey of discovery that will present us with new experiences and eventually lead to the ultimate 3D game – something that we can't even comprehend currently."
The team at Runcorn are certainly going to have fun discovering the possibilities, Ian thinks. "The technology is still a blank canvas. We can make it anything we want it to be."
PlayStation is adding dashes of colour to that canvas all the time, with more than 80 games available to play in stereoscopic 3D already. To stay abreast of the latest developments in stereoscopic 3D games, keep an eye on eu.playstation.com, head over to PlayStation.Blog at blog.eu.playstation.com and check out the section dedicated to 3D content on PlayStation Store.