The State of 3D: PC leads the way

Optimism in the channel for renewed upgrade demand
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In the first feature of this series on the state of 3D, PCR discussed the rise of 3D visualisation in entertainment media, appearance of 3D delivery standards and the increasing prevalence of 3D ready consumer equipment. These factors lead IEEE guru Stu Lipoff to predict that far from being a flash in the pan, 3D was on the verge of a “disruptive change” on a par with “the transition from black & white to colour TV”.

If there’s one thing the move to high definition taught us, it’s the availability of content which will ultimately drive the upgrade cycle. With 3D broadcasting in its infancy and just a handful of 3D Blu-ray titles on the market, it seems unlikely the public are going to rush to replace their TVs just yet, though they’ll be mindful of choosing a “3D ready” device if upgrading to a new HDTV anyway.

As we discussed in part 1, displays utilised with active shutter 3D technology are really no different from the current crop of HDTVs which are already capable of the required high refresh rates. So enabling 3D functionality is a relatively minor addition for manufacturers, needing only to ensure the equipment can handle ‘frame packing’ as part of the new HDMI standard and an infrared transmitter to synchronise the shutters in 3D glasses.

However there’s one platform that is here today, delivering large amounts of 3D content to a willing and eager early-adopting market; PC gaming. Graphics hardware technology outfit Nvidia had been quick off the mark to realise the opportunity with the launch of the Nvidia 3D Vision system. Comprising of a combination of software drivers for Nvidia graphics cards and a bundle of hardware including active shutter glasses and a matching USB infrared transmitter, Nvidia 3D vision is as impressive as it is cost effective.

Nvidia’s 3D Vision leverages the fact that full 3D content is being processed by 3D graphics hardware as it performs the tasks necessary to generate the output video. This leaves the door open for an approach which simply renders left eye and right eye images alternately at double the normal refresh rate. The bundled 3D active shutter glasses ensure the appropriate eye gets the appropriate image. 

The system is not only highly effective but in theory it works with virtually all 3D games on the PC. Some game developers have taken to building in specific support to improve the already very impressive 3D effect. Even beyond games, there’s no reason the PC can’t be used to play 3D movie content. Blu-ray support requires a Blu-ray drive, software player and a HDCP-capable monitor but even without the hardware required for Blu-ray, there are many more opportunities for 3D video and photo content.

Roger L. Kay, president of analysts Endpoint Technologies, says that 3D isn’t a single-company phenomenon but that “the hardware ecosystem includes makers of 3D monitors, 3D graphics chips and cards, 3D ready desktops and notebooks, 3D still cameras, 3D video cameras, and 3D TVs. Camera manufacturers like Fuji and Sony are shipping or set to ship new 3D digital cameras this year.”

As the visual media hub, the emerging trend of a shift to broadband streaming looks set to place the 3D-capable PC at a considerable advantage. “The streaming of 3D content will be huge. As broadband access improves, 3D content streaming will grow beyond mainstream examples already in market, such as Hulu and YouTube. Software companies Microsoft and Adobe will push out new 3D streaming players rapidly,” said Kay.

Like most shifts in technology, 3D is going to rely on early adopters. Just as Avatar demonstrated an intense word-of-mouth effect leading to remarkable box office success, so too the word of mouth power of 3D gaming shouldn’t be underestimated. In our experience one look at the latest videogames in high resolution 3D is immediately greeted with questions about what it will take to acquire the incredible new 3D experience. 

It’s worth contrasting 3D in terms of PC gaming and the consoles, particularly since so much ground has been lost to the console market in years past. The Playstation 3 has already launched some 3D capability through a 3D ready display device connected via HDMI, however only a limited number of games have appeared and the Xbox 360 has yet to launch any 3D content at all. 

Both are equally as capable but the console’s lower hardware specifications are holding them back from enabling 3D on all games. 3D gaming has a performance impact, as much as 40% drop in frame rate has been seen on PC systems enabling Nvidia’s 3D mode.

The problem for consoles is that they push the very limits of the hardware to deliver the best visuals for one type of display - presently 2D. 3D modes are going to need to give something up in the graphics department. Either way, game developers are going to have to deal with the 2D/3D display options individually, adding expenses for a relatively small market. 

However common PC gaming graphics hardware is often already very powerful. Either the system isn’t being taxed anyway or quality settings, such as anti aliasing settings, may need to be reduced to claw back the performance. 

For some, the performance impact is enough that they’ll want to upgrade graphics hardware as well, an avenue obviously not open to games consoles. That said, rival graphics card vendor ATI has held the upper hand in 3D graphics cards in recent times which also means that Nvidia’s 3D Vision will be leaving many ATI-owning PC gamers disappointed. Good news for Nvidia and upgrades at least.

With the major consoles on the market now showing their age in hardware capability versus even low-end PC gaming hardware, 3D visualisation looks set to highlight the platform differences dramatically, further raising the possibility of drawing at a small number of gamers back to PC gaming in search of striking new features such as 3D. 

Then there are the developments in the high-end multi-display area. This time ATI puts in a rather better competitive effort with the Eyefinity system which offers the capability to output several monitors from one high-end ATI video card, effectively providing a massive virtual ultra high resolution display, albeit a 2D one.

Meanwhile at Computex in May, Nvidia showed off 3D Vision Surround – a similar multi-monitor display system as Eyefinity. The Nvidia system is more restrictive on displays per card but it’s able to deliver 3D over multiple monitors. Ultra high end systems such as this are unlikely to be making a huge impact in terms of numbers but it’s an example of the PC market pushing into the new areas as earlier developments become widely adopted. 

Relevant for the main in the street, more so perhaps than a gaming desktop PC-like system, rapid improvements in technology are also pointing towards a possible future where the PCs are more integrated solutions such as laptops become feasible as all-in-one devices to drive 3D displays. Laptops are increasingly equipped with powerful graphics hardware and HDMI output ports which make them an ideal match for mainstream 3D ready display devices already on the market.

Panasonic is one leading display brand with 3D ready full HD large-screen plasma TVs set to arrive on the market soon. The relevance of PC content has not been lost on the Japanese electronics giant as Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, CTO of Panasonic USA, said: “Now with the HDMI 1.4 standard, 3D PC content can be easily enjoyed on large-screen plasma Full HD 3D TVs, whose fast refresh rates and deep black levels make for a more immersive and magical gaming experience.”

PC manufacturers are telling similar stories about a PC-powered 3D environment. Jerry Shen, CEO of Asus said: “Asus is very bullish on developing the 3D PC category by shipping notebooks, desktops and an all-in-one PC equipped with NVIDIA 3D Vision. We believe that all entertainment-based PCs will become 3D capable within a few years.”

So then, if the 3D is here to stay and the PC is shaping up as the choice delivery mechanism of choice, the future looks bright for the broad set of companies involved in the technology change that’s making 3D an eye-popping reality right here and now.

What does a PC 3D upgrade cost?

In UK retail, the Nvidia GeForce 3D Vision kit is being sold for around £140 stand-alone. There are a number of 120Hz monitors certified to work with Nvidia 3D Vision and as you’d expect there’s a price difference depending on size and resolution. There’s also the issue of copy protected content over HDMI or HDCP as it’s known. Without support for HDCP, playback of 3D Blu-ray isn’t possible.

The Viewsonic 22-inch VX2268WM monitor offers 1680x1050 resolution, has no HDCP capability and costs around £225.

The Acer Aspire 23.6-inch GD245HQ monitors offers 1920x1080 resolution, does has HDCP capability and costs around £300.

Several retailers are offering bundles of the Nvidia 3D kit and the appropriate monitor with a cost saving that looks to be about £20-30 off the price of the monitor and the Nvidia 3D kit stand-alone.

Regarding graphics card hardware, we might suggest that the GeForce GTX 465 would be a reasonable fit for the lower resolution display coming in at £230 or so while the up market GTX 470 would likely be better fit for the higher resolution units with a cost of around £280.

That places the cost of an upgrade at around £580 for the lower resolution non Blu-ray capable system if taking advantage of a bundle monitor/Nvidia 3D Kit. While the higher end unit would cost around £700, again if using the monitor/kit bundle pricing.

If using a projector, a gaming system is likely to want to avoid the various 1024x768 low resolution cheaper units on the market. The Acer H5360 is a good 1280 x 720 unit certified to work with Nvidia’s 3D Vision and is widely available from Dixons and Curries at a cost of around £525. 

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