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Nvidia goes stereoscopic with GeForce 3D Vision

Fill my eyes with that double vision

I'm going to assume you have, at some point in your life, tried out some sort of stereoscopic 3D glasses scheme. They come in all forms, from the early blue-and-red specs used in Jaws 3D to the virtual reality goggles with individual LCDs built-in. (Wow, I am old.) If you've seen a 3D movie in the theater more recently, you probably wore some simple cardboard glasses. And let's be honest: all of these glasses have one thing in common: the cheese factor.

Yeah, they're cheesy. You feel like a fool putting them on, and even if the 3D effect works pretty well, you can't escape the sensation entirely. As if the people closest to you, the ones you care about most, could see you now—they would point and laugh.

If you're at all familiar with the history of stereoscopic 3D schemes in computer games, you may have further reservations about these things. In my years covering this industry, I've managed to experience quite a few such products. I've seen the flicker, and I've come away with the vague headaches and sense of vertigo to match.

So when presented with these new GeForce 3D Vision glasses from Nvidia, you can imagine why my initial reaction was skepticism. I mean, what's really changed between the last time we tried this and now?

A couple of things, it turns out. For one, incremental improvements in technology over the last little while have served to make stereoscopic schemes more viable. With each generation, GPUs have grown by leaps and bounds in terms of visual fidelity and performance. They can generate much more convincing images than they could just a few short years ago. At the same time, LCDs have supplanted CRTs as the display technology of choice. Display makers have adopted wider aspect ratios better suited to the human visual field and, crucially, the very newest LCDs are quick enough to refresh onscreen images at a rate of 120Hz—often enough to display a 60Hz image for each eye in a stereo vision scheme.

The second change is who's making this latest push for stereoscopic visuals. This isn't some start-up whose booth is tucked into the back corner of the convention hall at GDC. Nvidia is one of the leading graphics chip makers in the world, and it has strong relationships and substantial clout with game developers. Nvidia is also a mighty hard-headed—err, shall we say, determined?—company. If anybody can make this go, it's probably them.

Not that the whole dorky 3D glasses thing is any sort of a slam-dunk proposition, of course. But I've spent some time playing around with Nvidia's GeForce 3D Vision, and I'm at least intrigued by its potential.

What it takes
The GeForce 3D Vision package comes with two main components: a pair of glasses and a little, black, pyramid-shaped doohickey that happens to be an IR transmitter. Both of these devices plug into the computer via a USB cable. The glasses plug in only for the purpose of charging. Otherwise, they're wireless and won't keep you tethered to your PC, thank goodness. The IR transmitter must remain connected to the PC, of course, because it's what sends signals to the glasses.

The 3D Vision scheme creates the impression of depth by showing different images to the right and left eyes, with the image for each eye adjusted for perspective. In order to be sure each eye sees a separate image, Nvidia uses a shuttering scheme similar to a number of past attempts at 3D. The display shows two different images in rapid succession, one for the left eye and another for the right. The glasses use active polarization to block the light going to the eye whose image isn't being shown, and then, simultaneously, the display and glasses alternate to the other eye.

Without glasses, both images are visible—and confusing

This switch happens very rapidly—at up to 120 times per second with this new breed of LCD—and if all goes well, the resulting effect won't make you blow chunks all over your living room floor. Instead, your eyes should struggle to focus for a second and then—BAM!—you have a splitting headache.

No, not really. At least, probably not. Even if you do, though, you should also have the distinct impression of depth inside of your computer monitor.

Interchangeable nosepieces offer a custom fit for your schnoz

The big, black, plastic glasses are key to making this magic happen, and Nvidia has obviously devoted considerable effort to their design. Despite their thick temples, which presumably house control electronics and a battery, the glasses are relatively lightweight, and the rubber nosepiece grips and rests comfortably on my outsized beak. Since a high proportion of 3D Vision's potential customer base probably wears glasses, Nvidia has designed its magic shades to fit on your head while you're already wearing regular glasses. To my great surprise, they seem to have achieved success in this department. At least, the 3D shades fit over and around my smallish, wire-rim glasses with no trouble whatsoever, without squishing them or compressing them into the sides of my head. If you wear gigantic horn rims, though, your mileage may vary.

As you may be able to tell from the pictures, the glasses manage to fit over a regular pair and stay on the face by, essentially, pinching your head. The green, plastic ends of the arms on the glasses are contoured and curve inward. On me, they grip right above the ears, compressing my enormous noggin tightly enough keep the 3D specs secure. Problem is, I have chronic, low-level TMJ syndrome. Pinching my head above the ears will not endear you to me. I really wish the glasses had better padding and a larger surface area where they meet the head. Most folks probably won't run into the same problem, but you'd definitely want to try these things on before buying them.

Nvidia claims the glasses are good for 40 hours of gaming on a single battery charge. I didn't quite test those limits, but based on my casual use and neglect for charging, I'd say the glasses do have a considerable run time.