Mick Hocking (Sony Computer Entertainment)
The revolution is coming, so they say, and it’ll be televised in full 3D. Well, maybe not, but the dawn of the era of 3D gaming has arrived and it’s thanks in no small part to Mick Hocking, Senior Director of Sony Europe and Manager of Evolution Studios, Bigbig Studios and Sony’s Studio Liverpool. As you may have guessed from his various titles, Mick is a busy man, and right now he’s busiest with another role, that of Director of Sony’s Worldwide Studio 3D Stereoscopic team. Although we may all agree that it’s quite a snappy sounding division, what exactly does it do?
“Okay, well the way it’s set up on the business side of things is that we have a dedicated facility within the Sony system to train and educate all our employees on an ongoing basis. Well we perform exactly the same function within games,” Mick explained. “We go around to all the Sony game teams around the world, and we educate them on how to actually produce 3D games, optimise games for 3D and convert games from 2D to 3D because there’s an enormous amount of stuff to learn when you’re doing 3D. What we’re all about is very, very high quality 3D. We also work with third parties too, so as well as working with the entire Sony organisation we’ll work with third party publishers and developers to show them what can be done with the 3D technology.”
It seems that in a world where everyone wants to be involved with the newest technologies, that Sony have really taken the driving seat when it comes to not only 3D gaming, but 3D home entertainment technology in general.
“Sony is completely unique as a company in the world of 3D – we’re the only company who has the entire hardware chain in 3D; we’ve not only got film, we’ve got 3D games, 3D photography and at some point in the near future we’ll have 3D camcorders coming out. So what this means is that we can deal with experts in every other division and exchange ideas and practices on 3D. Film of course has led the way, but we’ve been able to apply a lot that’s been learned there to games as well, and that’s allowed us to get up the curve very quickly in terms of 3D.”
A lot has been made of the recent upgrade to make the PlayStation 3 3D compatible – or more accurately to activate the latent 3D compatibility which was inherent in every box since the product launched – but how important do Sony see their flagship console as being in the long run when it comes to 3D entertainment? Mick told us “Looking at the PlayStation 3 specifically, there are 35.7million units out there at the moment… and all of them have had firmware upgrades to make them 3D compatible. Anyone who’s connected can now play 3D media on their PlayStation 3. In terms of market for us, we’ve got just under 36million 3D ready entertainment units out there already.”
Okay, that’s a fairly healthy penetration for a market which has barely got out of its teething phase, but most people would view the PS3 as a gaming system first and an entertainment system second. Is there anything there that might swing people’s opinions? Of course there were, silly question… Mick explained “Later this year there’ll be a firmware update coming for 3D Blu-ray movies, so again there’s a market for 3D Blu-ray movies with the 36million 3D Blu-ray players we’ve got out there already in terms of the PlayStation 3.”
“We’ll also be doing a 3D photo application in the next 12 months. The nice thing is that both the photo apps and compatibility with 3D AVI files works straight out of the box with PS3s, and the PlayStation 3 is unique because you can play all of this content within the one device. That’s a really powerful selling point for us and the message we want to get out there. At the moment people are just looking at 3D movies, and we’re starting to seethe first 3D games, but there are a number of 3D cameras coming on the market soon and from next year onwards we’re going to see 3D camcorders becoming available.”
“A nice point about 3D on PlayStation 3 is that it’s completely seamless; it’s extremely easy to do. Everything is designed to be plug and play so your PS3 will automatically recognise if you’re connected to a 3DTV and perform accordingly. If you are connected to a 3DTV, when you run a 3D compatible game it’ll give you the options to play the game in 3D, whereas if you’re not connected to a 3DTV that option wont be visible. It’s one hundred percent seamless, and nothing more to do than to connect the HDMI cable to your 3DTV!”
It’s not just 3D visual display that’s been earning column inches since E3 though, Sony’s PlayStation Move controller promises to take gaming interfaces into the third dimension too, and the PlayStation Eye has found itself an unlikely player in the 3D market, as Mick was quick to relate. “Something else that is quite important for us is how we’re going to be using 3D with our peripherals. The first one is that we’ve managed to get EyePets working in 3D which was quite an interesting job. The challenge there was to put 3D objects into a 2D video feed, as captured by the PlayStation Eye camera, and it was quite tricky to do, but we’ve now solved that problem and it’s something we’ll be able to use in other games in future. It actually looks really good too which kind of surprised us, because we thought it was going to be really tricky to integrate 2D video and 3D objects.”
“Something else we’re just really starting to play with is 3D and PlayStation Move. This is the first time this has ever been done; this is 3D spatial control outside the TV and mapping the control outside the TV to a 3D space within the game display itself. One thing 3D is really good at is allowing us to have a point of view in the game so you can arrange things just like the player is in the scene itself to really give it a sense of realism, and we’re now providing full 3D control to add to that, making it feel like you’re in the scene too.”
“A good example of this 3D control within a 3D game is this very simple Jenga type game I’ll show you a brief video of here, I don’t think this one is actually on show yet but it’ll give you the idea (hits play on video screen). In With the Move controller we’ll allow you to fully manipulate what you see in 3D space within the TV. Previously in games, to create the impression of 3D, you would have to have placed the light source quite high up in the scene so you would have a shadow showing you when the blocks were over the ones below. But with 3D you can see that straight away, so we can put the light source anywhere and that’s just not possible in 2D.”
We’ve not really hid the fact that we’ve always seen the whole 3D thing as nothing more than an ill-fated visual experiment that’s never going to be seen as more than a curious fad which will punctuate theatre in the early 2010’s in the annals of history, but after playing the Killzone 3 3D demo, we have to admit that we’ve started to feel ourselves being swayed to believing that it might be a viable option for the future of gaming, if not now than at some stage in the future. Mick believes that the potential application of the technology for games is particularly promising.
“In terms of what 3D actually does for the games themselves, well we’ve converted a lot of games to 3D in the last couple of years – we’ve tried just about all the different genres. I don’t think there’s any game we’ve converted to date which hasn’t benefited in some way from 3D.“
“There are three main areas in general where 3D can bring improvement to games. The first is that it increases the level of immersion – because you’re now viewing the game world in the same way you normally perceive the real world, you get a greater connection with it. The second benefit is added realism. Let’s take something like a driving simulation. In the real world you perceive speed automatically and judge your braking distance, based on your depth cues. When you play a driving simulator in 3D you use exactly the same sort of mechanisms as you do in real life to judge when to brake and how fast you’re going, and for the likes of sports games you get depth perception to help judge how far away the ball is and how fast it’s travelling, which really helps.”
“The third thing is that 3D improves the clarity of the information on display. In traditional games we’ve often found that we’ve had to make the HUD very, very bright to stand away from the game behind it, but when you put a game in 3D we can sit the HUD away from the screen and make it very obvious where it is, so that it’s not longer competing for space with the game behind it – meaning that we can make the HUDs less intrusive overall.”
“In terms of what 3D means for hardcore gamers, is that they’ll get a competitive advantage playing in 3D against a player who’s playing in 2D. If you’re playing a first person shooter you can more accurately judge distance in the game, you might be better able to judge where to throw a grenade for example. One interesting thing is camouflage, it’s much easier to see where enemies are in 3D – your brain picks them out quicker because it’s got depth of scene.”
“Of course the other thing for us is that it makes some games easier to play. There are more cues coming at you in the game which you are absorbing constantly and it can make the game easier to play, which will help bring new players to the game. The type of person who might not play a driving simulation in 2D will enjoy the experience a lot more in 3D.”
There’s no doubt Mick talks a good game, but we raised our concerns about the uptake of the public when it comes to 3DTVs… after all, most households have only splashed out for a brand new HDTV in the past few hears. Surely with a global recession in full swing he can’t believe that there will be people breaking their necks to add 3D to their set up?
“I think this is the big challenge,” he admits. “We know we can produce fantastic quality 3D content in games, movies, handheld formats and much more. We’ve got to get the TVs out there, and I think there will be something like 15million 3DTVs coming on the market in the next 12 months from all the major manufacturers – and they’re all pushing the same way as us to get the message out there that 3D really adds something to the experience.”
“3D broadcast is coming on line later in the year, and there are already a lot of 3D Blu-ray movies coming out. It’s definitely a challenge because people have already bought HDTVs for the living room, but we’re confident that there’s going to be a fairly steady uptake initially. There’ll be the early adopters, as you’d expect, but once the message gets out there and there’s more high quality 3D content, like 3D football, then I think we’ll see inflation in the market.”
As we got the sign that time was up, we had to get a final question in, one which we thought was one of the most important for prospective adopters of 3D living-room technology – are we going to see as dramatic an improvement in picture quality in the fist few years of 3DTV’s life cycle, or have we got a solid standard already established?
“There’s a standard in terms of producing the TVs yeah; HDMI 1.4 – so there’s no format war this time. There are different techniques to produce a 3D image, so each manufacturer will have a slightly different take on it, but I think the quality is already there though. This is the first time ever that we’ve had affordable, very high quality 3D in the home. I don’t think we’re going to see another step in quality at all.”