Three months ago I, probably like many of you, could not wait for the latest annoying tech fad to fade into the obscurity it so richly seemed to deserve. Part of it is that I have been through this particular fad before, and I recall with clear disdain how silly and short-lived it was the last time. Which is just about exactly how silly and short lived it had been the time before that. And the time before that.
Entertainers have been trying to make 3D work for mainstream audiences in a meaningful way since the early 1950s, and in the intervening decades the 3D fad waxed and waned with the confident regularity of the moon, prune farmers or Robert Downey Jr's career. Every other decade or so each new generation rediscovers the idea and becomes quickly disillusioned with looking like a jackass in a public movie theater.
From the moment I first put on those cardboard glasses back in the dark ages of the eighties with their flimsy one blue and one red lens I knew this was a giant load of nonsense. It was not unlike how I felt the first time I wore an Ocean Pacific shirt, jean jacket or parachute pants, like some shadowy, pop-culture evil trickster was playing an unkind trick on me and my entire generation. So, when at this year's PAX I was handed slightly fancier looking, but no less inconvenient 3D glasses to experience computer gaming in the THIRD DIMENSION, I was entirely prepared to roll my eyes and proclaim the latest attempt just another in a long string of failure.
Tragically and unexpectedly, I loved it.
I didn’t see Avatar in 3D. More specifically, I didn’t see the point of seeing Avatar in 3D, so really my first experience with this latest round of 3D came when my son took me to see Hubble 3D at the IMAX for Father’s Day in June. Spending a day with my son was terrific, but the 3D experience, while kind of cool in a kitschy proved mostly disappointing, like watching a movie starring Jeff Goldblum. The film was just out of focus enough to mar the quality, much of the show emphasized flat 2D images and I still had to deal with making my regular glasses and the theater's cheap, crappy 3D glasses work in tandem.
A few weeks later I sat down at a display in a local Best Buy to watch a clip of some 3D animated kids movie. The glasses were half broken and tethered uncomfortably to the chair, and the cost of the television on which the show was broadcast reminded me of how prohibitively expensive the experience was. Again, my whelm was decidedly undered.
So, to experience 3D again at PAX, under less than ideal conditions with a mass of humanity milling about to all sides, seemed a recipe for disaster. To be honest I wouldn’t have likely even messed with it, except that the NVIDIA 3D area was the only convenient place to play Civilization V, and my desire to play Civ V was matched that day only by my desire to enact legislation prohibiting men from participating in topless cosplay. By the end of my session, I was as enthralled with the 3D technology as I was the actual game.
Being any kind of advocate for 3D gaming is to me like being the cultural cheerleader for Air Supply or Erma Bombeck books. It's not that a case can't be made. I just don't want to be the guy making the case. After all, wearing a pair of heavy, battery-powered glasses any time I want to play a game seems like the stuff of the most annoying nightmares, like trying to enjoy a gourmet dinner at a taping of Two and a Half Men. And, when it comes right down to it, this is just technology that provides a pretty cool, though ultimately meaningless, optical illusion. It’s hard to imagine how playing in 3D will ever actually improve gameplay.
It’s expensive -- $200 for the 3D equipment and at least another $300 for a monitor that can support it. It’s inconsistently good -- different games have different levels of quality to their 3D implementation. It’s annoying -- not only do you have to do your playing with glasses on, but each game will likely require fine tuning. Most importantly, it’s probably nothing more than a passing trend.
And yet, I finally see now as I never had before why people keep coming back to this kind of display gimmick. When it is working as intended, I can not deny that it adds a deeply unexpected layer to the gaming experience. Ultimately, in tune with the very nature of gaming itself, it excels at fooling our brain into believing that this artificial construct in which we play has legitimate depth to it. 3D works because it is a reflection of the world we live in every day, and for an industry where immersion is a major goal, it’s hard to deny the results.
I’m not saying I’m going to rush out and buy a bunch of expensive 3D stuff for my computer. I'm sure as hell not saying you should either. I’m not even saying that we should expect 3D to stick around and become practical in the long run.
What I am saying is this. No platform to date may be better served by or equipped to work with 3D gaming than the PC, and if the technology continues to improve and overcome the expense and convenience barriers, then there is something undeniably appealing here. Those are long odds to beat, and I have no confidence that they ever will be.
The thing is, now that I’ve seen what can be done and what can be experienced, I’m actually cheering the fad on rather than actively petitioning for its demise. That's the thing about fads -- they gain popularity for a reason. The question is whether the fad can evolve into something worth buying into for the long haul. For 3D gaming, that's still somewhere around the bend and over the horizon.