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What happened to 3D gaming?

With the launch of Nvidia’s 3D Vision 2 in 2011, Nvidia thought it had the next big thing on its hands. Fast forward to 2014 and 3D gaming is all but dead. What happened?


“I do definitely see a time when [stereoscopic] 3D gaming will overtake 2D gaming,” Nvidia’s Phil Eisler, the company’s former manager for 3D Vision, said on the floor of 2011’s GeForce LAN. “It’s an additive experience. It makes gaming better. Things that add to the experience always become mainstream over time and I think it will take five years to get there.”

Nvidia's Phil Eisler in a file photo
Nvidia’s Phil Eisler in a file photo

“We’ll see in the next five to 10 years most gamers will move over to stereoscopic gaming to further enhance their immersion,” he continued.

Eisler had just launched Nvidia’s followup to its first 3D headset, the 3D Vision 2, during the keynote of the GeForce LAN 6 so his enthusiasm for the product was understandable. But in any sort of serious discussion about the commercial viability of 3D gaming, the kind of statements Eisler made would have been preceded by a strong “cover your ass” forward-looking statement disclaimer. Despite Eisler’s enthusiasm for 3D gaming, and the hype built up around the Battlefield 3 demo on display at the GeForce LAN, reality didn’t end up meeting the expectations of Nvidia.

In the end 3D stereoscopic gaming proved to be a fad, and the category is virtually dead. Fast forward to 2014 and 3D Vision support from independent software vendors (ISVs) and OEMs has faded away to nothingness. There was only one 3D Vision 2 supporting monitor released in 2013, Asus’ VG248QE. Likewise, some of the only 3D Vision supporting titles released in 2013 included the video game adaptation of Disney’s Brave and a new version of the Roller Coaster Tycoon knockoff Roller Coaster Rampage. AMD didn’t fare much better in the market; its 3D playform called HD3D platform lacked the velocity of Nvidia’s 3D Vision and was perpetually in its shadow. To put it simply: the market for 3D gaming was never there. It was nothing more than a short lived fad.

But what happened along the way to oblivion?

No vision for 3D Vision

Nvidia first launched 3D Vision in 2008, and enjoyed a monopoly in the stereoscopic 3D gaming space until AMD launched its competing platform HD3D — a loose collection of APIs and compatible hardware — in 2012.

Nvidia and AMD had different strategies in approaching the stereoscopic question. Nvidia chose to use a closed platform, that required ISVs and hardware OEMs to sign on and commit, while AMD chose the open source route. Both versions of Nvidia’s 3D GFLAN-13Vision required the use of a USB emitter, or for an OEM to embed an emitter into the monitor. AMD’s approach was agnostic on specific standards for 3D, and is compatible with a wide variety of hardware; it’s focused more on setting up a specific API and framework to allow developers to create stereoscopic titles or convert existing titled to 3D (AMD relied on middleware makers to do the heavy lifting in writing software to convert titles).

In the end Nvidia had the bigger list of stereoscopic titles — but that list was nothing to be proud of. Aside from Battlefield 3 one of the only other titles of note in Nvida’s stereoscopic stable was Batman: Arkham Origins, and Nvidia has a close relationship with its developer often using games in the franchise as a tech demo for new GeForce features. AMD only had a handful of HD3D supporting titles, and those that AMD’s prescribed middleware converted into 3D often suffered from image quality issues.

While the market proved not terribly interested in stereoscopic gaming, it also lacked the thorough support from Nvidia and AMD necessary to get software vendors to buy in to the platform. For software companies to include vendor specific API support in their titles, there usually has to be a monetary incentive involved. That’s the reason why DICE’s Johan Andersson was on stage at Nvidia’s GeForce LAN to announce Battlefield 3’s support of 3D Vision 2, but has been recently found in AMD’s spotlight promoting Mantle (and thusly why Battlefield 4 does not support 3D Vision). Nvidia’s much-hyped G-Sync is another example of this: it’s now effectively vaporware because Nvidia the necessary monetary incentive for OEMs to get on board en-masse.

Fads in Oculus’ rift

At its core stereoscopic 3D gaming was unsustainable. Nvidia and AMD may have been able to get a few more years of life out of it if they invested more, but with shareholders wanting more focus on mobile neither company seemed particularly interested in propping up that sinking ship. But at the same time it’s neither the fault of Nvidia (except for perhaps Eisler’s unbridled optimism and reality distortion) and AMD that 3D gaming didn’t take off.

3D has been a failure in home entertainment universally. 3D TVs have reported disappointing sales as consumers continue to be not impressed with the 3D experience at home. 3D is certainly a gimmick that works well in theaters, a viewing of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in IMAX 3D is nothing short of a spectacular experience. As 3D films have a slight margin on regular tickets, the popularity of 3D films has helped boost box office profits year-over-year making them a Hollywood executive favourite.

There’s also the comfort and aesthetic issue. Over an extended period of time 3D glasses cause eye fatigue, and in extreme cases nausea. Users that wear glasses have a hard time fitting 3D glasses over their perscription set. Wearing a set of 3D glasses may be tolerable for the length of movie, but nearly impossible for an extended gaming session.

Looking at the fad of the now, virtual reality gaming lead by Oculus VR, one will see striking parallels to the plight of stereoscopic 3D gaming. In the case of Oculus, despite a takeover by Facebook and appearances at various AMD events, partner support from OEMs to ISVs is marginal meaning it will be tough to grow the list of natively compatible titles. Technically speaking Oculus’ headset is still a mess: the resolution is far too low as is the depth of field. It’s a long way from being ready.

When it is ready, there’s the question if the Playstation 4 and Xbox One even have the horsepower to provide a seamless VR experience at an acceptable resolution. Informed sources say they won’t, and Sony hasn’t made an official announcement on title compatibility of its Morpheus VR headset.

Potential technical shortcomings aside, at the end of the day the VR experience is delivered through a bulky headset. It’s something that will be tolerable to wear for short periods of time, not unlike 3D glasses, but will induce muscle strain and eye fatigue for extended periods. Hardly characteristics of something that’s supposed to be the next-generation of gaming.

Maybe people simply prefer the 2D experience?

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