TriOviz 3D: Too good to be true?

April 1st, 2010
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Last week's release of the Game of the Year edition of Batman: Arkham Asylum saw the debut of the brand new TriOviz for Games 3D system.
Designed to work with PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on conventional 2D displays, the system promises what developer Darkworks describes as "a high-quality, cutting-edge experience for the console audience without expensive barriers to adoption".
So just how does it work and how good is it?
"TriOviz for Games is the only quality solution that is currently available to every player out there, without the need to purchase further equipment," says Alexis Arragon, product manager for TriOviz.
"By quality I mean a good 3D feeling through an enhanced depth-of-field, dynamically changing according to the player's (or the camera's) point of view, with no colour loss and no impact on performance. Switch on your TV, we support both standard and high-definition sets, put the glasses on and you're ready to go with just an inexpensive pair of glasses."
With the new edition of Batman: Arkham Asylum, two sets of glasses are included in the package. They look just the same as traditional "paper" glasses, just with differently coloured lenses (pink and green as opposed to red and blue). The switch from 2D to 3D is accomplished during the initial calibration phase, or you can turn it on or off manually via a brief journey to the options screen.
The principles behind TriOviz are fairly straightforward. While the final image output from your gaming hardware is being rendered to a flat 2D screen, the consoles themselves are obviously operating internally in 3D. A key component in creating the image is through the use of the Z, or depth buffer. TriOviz operates on the engine level of the game it is incorporated into, extrapolating data from the buffer and then using colour separation to add the illusion of proper depth to the scene.
The concept of colour separation 3D is best known with the traditional red/blue anaglyph system, dating back over 50 years when poor-quality 3D first hit cinema screens. Although its system uses colour separation, Darkworks is keen to point out that there are some pretty big differences.
"Anaglyph is basically mixing a red image with a blue image, each one being shot a few inches apart from the other," explains Arragon.
"We tap into the game engine data to detect the orientation of the camera and we apply the 3D effect based on this plus the depth information available. Because we do not rely on the display mechanism to switch between two images (polarised screen, high frequency flickering), we need a way to display the 3D information, hence the coloured filters on the glasses. We keep this fringing to the minimum so the image still looks good when someone watches you playing, without the glasses."
Clearly there's additional processing going on here, which does add to the time taken to generate any given frame within Batman: Arkham Asylum. Having played the game, it's clear that the performance hit manifests in both console versions. However, the PS3 version tears more often than the 360 version even in 2D mode, and the impact to performance is more noticeable with the game running via TriOviz. However, it's still smooth enough and perfectly playable regardless of the host platform.
"The native integration of TriOviz for Games into a game eats up approximately 2ms each frame," reveals Arragon.
"That's below a 10 per cent hit in a 30FPS game. For more technologically-demanding games, there are memory and CPU optimisations to implement to go below the 2ms barrier. One of our prospects successfully integrated our solution in a 60FPS game. Because our SDK works like a shader, there are multiple ways to optimise performances when using TriOviz for Games."
Darkworks says that when Warner Bros. and Arkham Asylum developer Rocksteady saw the TriOviz demo, they were instantly excited by the possibilities.
"Since we started showing this technology to the industry, we've only encountered a couple of instances where people were dismissive," Arragon says.
"The vast majority are impressed by what the TriOviz technology adds, especially based on what it delivers using the equipment that 100 per cent of the players already own. Of course, some publishers and developers get more excited than others, as was the case with Warner Bros. and Rocksteady. It's amazing to be debuting on the market with such a great title."
The developer describes TriOviz for Games as a "straightforward, non-intrusive solution to turn any game into 3D" and reckons that the integration process is quick and painless. Darkworks itself will work on-site "commando-style" to help with the conversion.
"Depending on game engine specifics, the implementation can take up to a week to complete: meaning tapping into the codebase, getting the effect to work at its best in 100 per cent of the game, optimising the colours if it's required and adding a bit of polish here and there," Alexis Arragon reveals.
"Our team is available to come on site, do the integration and teach someone at the developer's side how to deal with 3D. It's like learning a new language in a couple of hours; the mastery just comes with a bit of experience. Then we make ourselves available for support through email, phone or even commando operations before submission."
The notion of repurposing the depth buffer for a stereo 3D style effect isn't new. Indeed, at the recent GDC event Sony revealed plans to adapt and improve this basic concept in order to allow more PS3 titles to transition into full stereoscopic 3D for the forthcoming launch of its dedicated sets (more on that in a future Digital Foundry post). Support for the so-called "2D plus depth" system is also a part of the new 3D-based HDMI 1.4 protocols.

However, there are clear disadvantages in adopting a 3D approach based on the Z-buffer over and above the basic fact that the game is still essentially rendering the viewpoint for just one eye. Chief amongst them is that transparency effects aren't rendered in the depth buffer, so they won't show up as a 3D effect on-screen. So the danger there is that particle effects and explosions - sometimes the most spectacular parts of a game - will look flat as a consequence of limitations in the basic concept.
"Sure, there are some limitations based on what is and what is not written in the depth buffer, but there are also solutions to work around those," Arragon says confidently.
"I'll let you play through Batman: Arkham Asylum GOTY edition to decide for yourself whether particles and explosions look good or not. Be sure to take a look at the detective vision mode too."
And decide I have. Having spent a couple of days with both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the Game of the Year rendition of Batman: Arkham Asylum, my personal verdict is that while TriOviz offers up an interesting implementation of 3D, there are still some fundamental obstacles that ensure that the system doesn't quite live up to the claims being made for it.
However, Arragon's suggestion to try out the detective vision mode is a really good one: in this mode, the 3D effect is clear, unambiguous and looks rather smart. The flat colour and vector-style appearance suits the TriOviz technology remarkably well.
After the initial appreciation of the depth TriOViz offers once your eyes have adjusted, detective mode is the highlight of the whole endevour. It suggests that games that take into account TriOviz at the conceptualisation stage could benefit far more than tacking it on to an existing, completed game. It says to me that there's something here that's worth pursuing.
However, it's a bit difficult to process the claims about retaining the original colour palette when you have green and pink pieces of plastic covering your eyes: not surprisingly the colour balance feels very different to playing the game in 2D, so I'll assume that this claim is related to non-glasses viewing. With glasses donned, I found that it took a while for my eyes to "acclimatise" to any given scene, and when you moved into a new area with a new colour scheme or brightness level the process began anew.
Often, the pink and green fringes on objects were all too evident and sometimes the 3D effect simply didn't seem to work for me at all on the entire scene. I tried the game on two displays, fiddled with the colour balance on both in an effort to bring the pinks and greens closer to the lens colours and while the situation was improved I was never completely happy with the effect outside of the detective mode. I was left wondering if some kind of more involved in-game calibration system could have helped or whether we're just dealing with the inherent limitations of an optical illusion.
Other minor issues concerned the location of the HUD in 3D space, and the implementation of those pesky transparencies. Particles and explosions don't stay so long on-screen so any issues in implementation don't tend to register, but transparent textures such as the Joker's arrows on the ground and smiley-face graffiti do - and they don't look so great.
At the end of the day, using colour-filtered glasses is probably going to result in a variable experience depending on the individual. Let's not forget that this is not true stereoscopy, it's essentially a system that is trying to fool the human eye. Clearly TriOviz is a far cheaper alternative to buying a top-end 3D TV and active shutter glasses, and there is an added sense of depth that can look impressive, but having used Sony's proper stereoscopic 3D system and NVIDIA 3D Vision, there is little comparison. As a strong 3D advocate, I wanted TriOviz to look great. The full-on systems just do.
However, TriOviz retains the advantages it possesses in the PC space, where there are many other competing 3D systems. In addition to NVIDIA 3D Vision, at GDC I also had the chance to check out a new implementation called Triple-D, which was OK, but limited to DirectX 9-only and with no shadows. The version of DiRT 2 I saw looked decent enough in first-person mode, but in third-person the lack of shadows made the car look like it was floating in mid-air.
"We have a DX10 version working, and I am not aware of limitations on the PC side," assures Alexis Arragon. "Again, because we're at the software level, we do not have the barrier of that 'lack of X seen in Y driver solution'…"
NVIDIA's 3D Vision system seems to be gaining traction though, with the GPU vendor expanding its range of games all the time, and set to offer forthcoming compatibility for triple-screen set-ups, similar to AMD's EyeFinity but with an added dimension.
"While 3D is gaining a lot of momentum in Hollywood, we know that gamers are still a little sceptical, waiting to see a real, practical solution," says Arragon.
"With all the 120Hz monitors, polarised glasses, the shutter glasses, the old anaglyph curse and the likes, it's all very confusing. There's no standard yet and every quality solution on the market currently requires consumers to spend a fair amount of money for specific equipment. Arguably, 3D Vision does more dramatic 3D, but they have their engineers re-crafting the PC version of those games for a neat effect. Our solution does the job by itself and we do not hit the player with a $600 price tag."
Batman: Arkham Asylum - Game of the Year Edition is out now for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. Check out our original Batman: Arkham Asylum review to see why it's worth checking out.

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