The 4th Dimension of 3D
Our inborn 3D view of the world, created when the brain combines two images (one from each eye), helps a great deal when we're catching a baseball, avoiding a herd of stampeding water buffalo, and (best of all) playing 3D video games. The history of stereoscopic 3D gaming is long and varied: Since its origins in 1968, the techniques involved have fought an uphill battle against technology limitations and a buying public none too eager to wear stuff on its head. In the following 20 two-dimensional slides, we'll explore the near-complete history of stereoscopic electronic gaming--from its birth to the present--with nary a hint of motion sickness. I promise.
The 'Sword of Damocles' (1968)
In 1968, Ivan Sutherland of Harvard University created the first stereoscopic computer display (nicknamed the "Sword of Damocles" for the unwieldy size of the apparatus that hung over the user's head). Sutherland's experiments with virtual worlds began in 1966 at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, and they culminated in the invention of the first 3D head-mounted display and the first virtual computer environment, a wire-frame simulation of a room (shown here).
Photos: Ivan Sutherland
Sega Subroc-3D (1982)
Sega released the world's first commercial stereoscopic video game, Subroc-3D, in 1982. The aquatic-warfare game integrated a unique binocular viewport that mimicked a submarine's periscope. The machine created a stereoscopic 3D effect via two half-clear, half-opaque spinning discs. The discs spun in synchronization with images on the monitor so that as an image for the left eye showed on the screen, the right eye's view was blocked by the opaque portion of a disc, and vice versa.
Tomytronic 3-D (1983)
Japanese toy company Tomy released a line of handheld electronic games with stereoscopic displays starting in 1983. Every unit in the Tomytronic 3-D series contained two separate LCD screens and colored transparent filters, each with a slightly different set of graphics for each eye. While holding the binocularlike device up to their eyes, users could see an impressive 3D effect. The games were popular enough that a few other manufacturers created similar products throughout the 1980s.
GCE Vectrex 3D Imager (1983)
The first stereoscopic peripheral for a home video game console arrived in 1983 for the GCE Vectrex. The Vectrex 3D Imager was a strap-on headset with a spinning mechanical shutter disc. Every 3D game shipped with its own disc that provided the 3D effect and simulated color based on synchronizing the spinning disc and the on-screen image. The 3D Imager did not sell in large numbers, and is very rare today.
Square's Red-Blue Anaglyph Games (1987)
Video game developer Square created the first stereoscopic games for the Nintendo Famicom (the Japanese NES) in 1987. Todibase Daisakusen (released as 3-D WorldRunner in the United States) came first, followed by Highway Star (Rad Racer in the U.S.). Each game came with a pair of red-blue anaglyph glasses that generated the stereoscopic effect when the player activated 3D mode in the game.
Photos: Square, T. Gakken
Nintendo Famicom 3D System (1987)
In October 1987, Nintendo released the Famicom 3D System for its Family Computer game console (the Japanese NES). It consisted of a pair of LCD shutter glasses and a special interface box. The LCD shutters worked on the same principle that older mechanical disc shutters followed, but LCD shutters have the advantage of being both silent and less prone to failure than their mechanical precursors. This system never made it to the United States.
Photos: Nintendo, Boffy B
The Sega 3-D Glasses (1988)
Not to be outdone by Nintendo, Sega released its own LCD shutter glasses for its Japanese Mark III home console in 1988. Later in the year, the glasses made their way over to the Sega Master System, the U.S. equivalent to the Mark III. The Sega 3-D Glasses enjoyed brief popularity on the strength of compatible titles (such as Space Harrier 3D), but failed to start a long-term trend for home consoles.
Photos: Sega, Boffy B
Virtuality Arcade Games (1991)
The arrival of Virtuality's iconic stand-up virtual reality arcade games in the early 1990s marked the dawn of a golden era of popular interest in both stereoscopic displays and the concept of virtual reality. The games themselves--played with a handheld joystick and viewed through a stereoscopic headset--suffered from high costs, both for the equipment and for play (about $5 for 2 minutes at most arcades). Virtuality released Dactyl Nightmare in 1991 and soon became the go-to company for VR headset technology. Actual reality soon caught up, however, and the firm folded near the end of the decade.
Sega VR (1991)
Sega, high on itself from the success of its Genesis console in the United States, didn't want to be left out during the golden age of virtual reality, so it started a project called Sega VR in 1991. When finally demonstrated in 1993, however, the prototype failed to excite the press. That tepid response, coupled with fears that the unit could damage children's eyes, ensured that Sega VR would stay shelved forever.
Forte VFX1 (1994)
The VFX1 stereoscopic headset (which incorporated color LCDs for each eye) first shipped in 1994 and rode a small wave of popularity on the PC due to its compatibility with custom-patched versions of the first-person games Doom and Descent. The VFX1 also included a special "cyber-puck" gyroscopic hand controller to complete the immersion. Ultimately, though, the VFX1's high price kept it from flourishing in the market.
Photos: Forte Technologies
Nintendo Virtual Boy (1995)
Nintendo is still living down the spectacular commercial failure of the Virtual Boy, a bizarre 3D-only game system. The only color that the unit could display was red. Full-color display technology existed, but prohibitive costs forced the company into a unique but cheap means of generating an image: a single row of red LEDs bounced off vibrating mirrors. The effect worked well, but discomfort while playing the system was common--either from your eyes bugging out or from the slumping posture that resulted from crouching at the machine.
Atari Jaguar VR (1995)
Another artifact from the golden age of virtual reality is the Jaguar VR, a never-released peripheral for the 1993 Atari Jaguar game console. Engineers from Virtuality (the arcade VR maker discussed earlier) developed the unit, which consisted of a twin-LCD stereoscopic headset and an inexpensive infrared head-tracking system. Apparently the headset worked well enough that it almost saw release, but the dismantling of Atari's game group in 1996 put those plans on permanent hold.
Photos: Atari, BuddyBuddies
Sony PUD-J5A (2002)
In 2002 Sony released a little-known stereoscopic headset in Japan with a thoroughly underwhelming name: PUD-J5A. Sony intended it for use primarily with its PlayStation 2 console, but ultimately only a handful of games supported it. The PUD-J5A never gained much steam in Japan, which is probably why it never saw release in the United States.
Konami Tobidacid Solid Eye (2006)
After the failure of the Virtual Boy, few companies were willing to put much development or marketing muscle into stereoscopic console gaming. In 2006, however, an interesting, inexpensive alternative emerged from Konami: the Tobidacid Solid Eye. This simple cardboard peripheral for the Sony PlayStation Portable handheld shipped with every copy of Metal Gear Acid 2; users folded it together and placed it over their PSP screen. Konami designed the game to output two images, one for each eye on each half of the PSP display. The Solid Eye directed each eye to the correct image, creating a 3D effect.
Photos: Konami, PSP Gadgetz
Vuzix iWear VR920 (2007)
This stereoscopic headset, designed for PCs, attracted an unusually high amount of press attention due to the balance it offered between high quality and relatively low cost (about $400). The iWear VR920, which also supports head motion tracking, generates a stereoscopic image via two small color LCD screens. Mixed reviews, limited software support, and the public's continuing aversion to gimmicky headset displays have kept the VR920 from seeing widespread adoption. Even so, it may be the most popular "VR" headset yet produced in the United States.
Nvidia 3D Vision (2009)
Nvidia 3D Vision is a landmark modern shutter system designed for PCs. By 2009, consumer electronics manufacturers realized that bulky head-mounted displays weren't the best way to handle 3D, so they produced a new wave of LCD shutter glasses. This time the glasses arrived in step with LCD monitors sporting 120Hz image-refresh rates; at 120Hz, the monitors can show two images 60 times a second, which significantly reduces the flicker that plagued older stereoscopic shutter systems.
Photos: Nvidia, Asus
PlayStation 3 Goes 3D (2010)
About a year ago, stereoscopic 3D became the industry's biggest new push. In keeping with that plan, Sony began aggressively deploying 3D capability across most of its electronics lines--TVs, cameras, Blu-ray players, and, of course, the PlayStation 3. Sony's latest game console gained 3D capabilities in June 2010 via a firmware update. The stereoscopic effect is generated thanks to a new generation of 3D-compatible TV sets, most of which use LCD shutter glasses.
Hasbro My3D for iPhone (2010)
Stereoscopic 3D madness took hold across the gaming industry in 2010. In November, Hasbro announced a 3D peripheral for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch called My3D. In conjunction with special software that splits the iPhone screen into two images, the My3D will direct each eye to the correct image to produce a 3D effect. No word yet on exactly when (or if) the My3D will be released.
Let's Go Island 3D (2011)
And you thought stereoscopic 3D in the arcade was dead. Sega's Let's Go Island 3D is a safari-themed light-gun game for couples that will likely never make it out of Japan. It's unique in the arcade scene because it uses a glasses-free 52-inch 3D monitor as its display. Glasses-free 3D displays typically use microscopic parallax barriers that allow your left eye to see only one portion of the screen, and permit your right eye to see the other portion, based on the angles involved.
Nintendo 3DS (2011)
The Nintendo 3DS (which launches in the United States later this month) incorporates a glasses-free stereoscopic display on its top portion and a traditional touchscreen LCD below. The main drawback to the glasses-free display is that the user must remain directly in front of the screen to see the 3D effect. A 3D "depth-slider" on the 3DS adjusts the effect to user preference. Nintendo's new handheld includes twin cameras on the back to shoot 3D photos for the device. Ultimately, the 3DS's success or failure may predict the future of consumer stereoscopic 3D. Stay tuned.