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Nvidia's 3D Vision: Future Or Fad?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/20/2011

We've had 3D graphics for ages, but Nvidia's 3D vision takes things to a new level. Using specific hardware and a pair of specially designed glasses, Nvidia's 3D Vision brings eye-popping theater-style 3D graphics to your gaming PC. But does this technology have a future, or will it be forgotten?

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    A Quest

    3D entertainment has long been the Holy Grail of entertainment industries. Movies have consistently attempted to make 3D movies a main-stream form of the media, with limited success. Books, particularly kid’s books, have occasionally tried 3D gimmicks in order to entice ADD-riddled youngsters. And I think we all remember the Super-bowl ads, with their over-hyped and disappointing 3D.

    And then we have video games. Video games have so far been devoid of 3D mania. Why? Although technical hurdles and lack of interest could be cited, that roadblock certainly never stopped Hollywood. Personally, I suspect that devilish memories regarding Nintendo's migraine-inducing Virtual Boy is the culprit. But in any case, it appears that Nvidia has decided to take a serious stab at making 3D gaming mean more than polygons.

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    The Tech Behind The Trend

    Chances are that, at some point, you've had the chance to put on a pair of 3D glasses. The concept behind this sort of technology is that by presenting a slightly different image to each eye, the illusion of depth can be created. One version of this concept, the Red/Cyan Anaglyph, is something that you probably ran into as a kid. In that case, there are two color layers that are offset, and by interacting with the colors of the lens (one lens is red and blocks out red portions of the image, while one is cyan and blocks out cyan portions of the image) a 3D effect is created.

    Nvidia's technology is more advanced, however, and consists of a large pair of glasses which have the ability to rapidly change between allowing light through and filtering light out. The glasses connect wirelessly to a base that is attached to your PC via USB. This is important, because it tells the glasses what they need to be doing at a given moment in order to create the 3D effect. In other words, if you simply put on the glasses without having them turned on and receiving the wireless signal, there will be no 3D.

    This technology, although still one of the more advanced forms of stereoscopic 3D, isn't rocket science. Equally important to the equation, however, is Nvidia's special software, which is what allows the effect to be created in so many games, including those that were out before this product was released or even announced. Rather than relying on developers to support their product, Nvidia is being more proactive. This is a great way to approach a product which is not going to be quickly adopted by a larger number of users, and is a larger leap, in terms of technology, than the glasses themselves.

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    What Do I Need For 3D Vision?

    The first thing you need is a monitor capable of 120Hz, and officially there are only three displays which Nvidia actively supports, all of which are made by Zalman and all of which cost about twice what you'd normally pay for a product of similar size with more mainstream specifications. Remember, your computer has to render two, separate frames in an alternating pattern in order to create the 3D visuals. As a result, your computer will be displaying a large number of frames in a short period of time, and those frames must render very smoothly. Only 120Hz monitors are capable of updating the display quickly enough to generate the 3D effect.

    You'll also need some serious GPU power. Because your computer has to render two frames in order to create one 3D frame, the amount of power that you need to run a game smoothly will (roughly) double. This means that if you can currently run a game at about 30 to 40 frames per second, the game will probably not be playable at the same resolutions and with the same settings when in 3D.

    The last, but most important, component is Nvidia's 3D glasses. At a base MSRP of $199.99, these glasses are far from cheap, but they are required if you want to be able to see the 3D effect. Without them, the image will simply look blurred - or that is the theory. Some rumors have been swirling around the Internet that other 3D glasses will work, although not as well. There is no confirmation on this by Nvidia or any other company, however, so try it at your own risk.

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    What Games Are Supported?

    Game support isn't as bad as you might think, considering that this brand of the technology is very new, and the high price of the setup makes this a luxury item that only a select few will ever purchase. Games with support including Burnout Paradise: Ultimate Box, Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead, and many other recent, critically appraised titles. The quality of the support is more scattered, however, because while Nvidia claims many games have "excellent" support, there are many problems being reported by those testing the hardware. The crosshairs on some first-person shooters, for example, are not rendered correctly, causing them to appear very far away or extremely close. Special effects such as smoke, fog, and explosions don't work properly in some games, causing them to appear flat rather than 3D. Things like water reflections also don't always work correctly, sometimes appearing flat, other times appearing to be placed closer or farther away than they should be.

    That said, when it does work, the effect is convincing, or at least more convincing than any stereoscopic 3D that has been previously introduced. Players of Left 4 Dead seem particularly pleased, because Left 4 Dead does not have the crosshair or interface problems present in some other games, and the darker setting with few special effects does not reveal any serious glitches which would hurt the player’s necessary suspension of disbelief.

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    Fad or Future?

    Overall, Nvidia's 3D Vision is impressive. It is among the best stereoscopic 3D solutions available for any form of media (not just PC gaming) and you can use it in a large variety of games right now. That said, there is no way to call it anything more than a fad. Buying a compatible display, Nvidia's stereoscopic glasses, and a video card capable of handling games making use of 3D vision could easily bring the total damage near the $1000 mark. That's a lot of money to spend on a toy which, while fun, does not add anything that a gamer can't do without. Sure, some deep-pocketed geeks will be eager to jump on this product, but that will hardly make it mainstream.

    But it isn't just price that makes this a merely a fad. Users of stereoscopic 3D have often complained in the past of headaches and eye strain, and this will most likely be an issue with Nvidia's solution, as well. The quality of the effect is also hard to regulate among different users - for example, those who have significant eye-sight problems, or who have one eye which is significantly more dominate than the other, may not be able to see the 3D effect at all. And then there are the glasses, which are simply uncool, and won't appeal to people casual gamers who are worried about their video game habit cramping their style. Still, it is an interesting product, and if you've got some cash just burning to be spent on a high-tech toy that will surprise your buddies, this could be the way to go.