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by James Sterrett
Article Type: Review
Article Date: September 04, 2002
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Creating Reality…VirtuallyIs virtual reality here? Well, not entirely. You can’t jack into a full-senses simulation, or walk onto a holodeck. You can try 3D glasses for your computer, however, and we’ve tested out eDimensional’s offering. Much of the time they are quite nifty, but you must be willing to tinker.
|What lies in the box? Read on! |
We can perceive depth because our eyes are a few centimeters apart. This causes them to see slightly different images and at slightly different angles. Our brains process these differences into inferences about distance. Stereoscopic viewing relies on one of several tricks to fool your brain into thinking there’s depth information present in a 2D image. Free-viewing is the simplest one in terms of equipment, and the hardest to use: it simply requires that the viewer deliberately defocus until the 3-D image comes into focus from the flat image. Other methods rely on feeding some information to one eye, and slightly different information to the other. Red-blue glasses, for example, do this by color-coding the offset images so the one eye will see images without any red and the other images without any blue.
eDimensional’s solution is to put a liquid crystal shutter in front of each of your eyes, and then to synchronize the shutters with the images displayed on the monitor. For a tiny fraction of a second, the monitor displays an image for your left eye while blocking vision from your right; then it displays an image for your right eye while blocking vision from your left, and so on, back and forth. There are three immediate advantages of this system. First, the LCD shutters are very light, so you need not wear much weight on your nose. Second, since the system doesn’t rely on color, there’s no distortion to the color of the image presented. Third, the system is based on information sent to the graphics accelerator card; thus the game need not be specifically programmed to support 3D stereo, which dramatically widens the number of programs the system works with. [If you want to know more, complete with some slightly gory technical details, go read NVIDIA’s technical briefing.]
|A close look at the glasses |
The GlassesE-D takes full advantage of the potential for lightness. The glasses themselves are all plastic, and not especially heavy, weighing perhaps twice what my prescription glasses weigh (with plastic lenses). The earpieces are highly adjustable for length and an extra set of earpieces comes in the package in case more is needed. The forehead bridge is not adjustable, which may cause trouble for people with unusually wide glasses or faces; there’s about 130-135 millimeters (just over 5 inches) of space to work with.
The main impact of wearing glasses with the E-D Glasses is to require you to sit slightly farther from the screen. If the glasses are close to your eyes, you can sit closer to the screen and still see the entire screen inside the LCD shutters. If the E-D Glasses are farther from your eyes, you have to back up to make the monitor smaller in your field of view so it fits inside the field of view of the shutters.
Nobody who has tried them here has found the glasses uncomfortable to wear, and the wired version (tested here) come with a handy adjustable clip to ensure the wire drops off the right-hand earpiece at a comfortable place. There are two potential disadvantages to the wired version of the glasses. First, it’s yet another cable snaking across your desk: add together the mouse, the keyboard, the headset cord for Roger Wilco, and the cables for your favorite joystick/throttle combination, and there is no shortage of opportunities for tangles. Second, the IR link version lets two people view the same image, instead of just one. On the other hand, the wire is long enough, at around six feet, to ensure there should be few problem with insufficient reach.
|And here's what's in the box - details inside! |
InstallationInstallation should be a breeze. You plug a “dongle” into the back of your video card, and then plug the monitor and the glasses into it (or the IR transmitter into it). The dongle helps synchronize the glasses and the display. The next stage is software installation. NVIDIA card owners should use NVIDIA’s stereo drivers, while the rest of you should use the drivers that come on the E-D CD. The CD also comes with the E-D Activator program that serves to turn on, off, and resynchronize the glasses, and a viewer for 3D still images. Unfortunately, installation was not simple for me, and the glasses would move into and out of synchronization at random. I needed to get a newer version of the E-D Activator program from E-D’s website. E-D’s telephone tech support solved the problem rapidly, but I did have a rather frustrated evening before calling them the next morning.
Config. / TweakingOnce the driver problems are solved, the glasses go to work. How well they work depends on both the game in question, and the amount of fiddling you are willing to do. Take a look at this diagram (clipped from the NVIDIA 3D Stereo User’s Guide, version 2.0):
|How the magic works |
All of these parameters can be adjusted on the fly using CTRL-Function keys. The two most common pairings adjust the degree of stereo separation (how far apart are the images on the screen?) and the convergence point (at what depth are the images not separated?) Optimally, you want HUD information to be at the zero-point for convergence. To make everything look 3D, yet sharp and clear, and avoid having the HUD information look doubled, can take a fair amount of fiddling around with settings. The more separation you add, the more 3D effect you get, and the more it appears on objects farther away from you, but the harder it may be for your brain to integrate the images, and the more you’ll need to fuss with the convergence point and other settings. Moreover, since every person’s eyes are slightly different distances apart and everybody’s brain is wired slightly differently in terms of processing 2D images into stereo, one person’s settings won’t be quite right for the next person. With practice, you’ll find you can get most things looking good rapidly - but it does take practice.
You’ll need a monitor with a high refresh rate at the resolution you plan to use. Anything less than about 100Hz is not recommended and certainly when the refresh rate gets much below that, flickering in the image becomes increasingly noticeable and increasingly irritating. Check your monitor manual or screen setup options carefully, because the refresh limits are different at different screen resolutions (the refresh rate drops as the number of pixels increases). If you cannot get at least 100Hz at the resolution you want to use, you’ll either have to settle for a lower resolution, get a new monitor, or invest in aspirin. Note that I am not especially flicker sensitive and am not one of those people who can see the 60Hz flicker in fluorescent lighting. If you are, then you’ll want to treat a higher refresh rate as your minimumwell over 120Hz if you can see the flicker of fluorescent lights, because you’ll be getting half of that rate into each eye.
You should also be aware that not all games can be made to work correctly. The biggest problem usually comes from gunsights, which are typically rendered by the game as a 2D HUD object without any depth information. On a 2D display, this is not a problem. On a 3D display, when you look at a target in the distance, your eye’s focus makes the gunsight, which seems to be at a much closer optical focus distance, suddenly become doubled. It’s just like holding a finger up in front of your face and them looking at an object rather farther away: you suddenly see two fingers when you are focused on the far-away object.
To solve this, both the NVIDIA drivers and the E-D drivers for other cards allow the use of a “laser pointer” feature. This inserts a laser pointer onto the center of the screen and adjusts it to be converged (seen as one “thing”) at the same depth as whatever it is sitting on. This is a great solution when it works; turn off the game’s gunsight and use the pointer. Unfortunately, if the drivers do not come already configured with the laser pointer, you need to delve into the registry and edit it yourself [adding, in the relevant game’s subsection of Software - NVIDIA Corporation - Stereo 3D - Game Configs, the DWORD “LaserSight” equal to the hexadecimal value of “1”.]
There are plenty of other odd errors that can crop up as well, some of which are insoluble, because they result from steps taken by the game programmers that display well in 2D but not in 3D. The other common and relatively unsolvable problem comes when the two separated images place a fairly bright object over a fairly dark object. The screen phosphors can’t keep up well enough, and you wind up with a ghost image of the bright object in the dark object’s space on the screen. NVIDIA’s stereo drivers come with an extensive array of presets for games and commentary upon them (accessed through the Screen Properties control), and the comments are spot on. If the comments say you need to use a given setting in the game…believe it. Set it! They aren’t kidding! If the comments say something can’t be entirely fixed, it’s almost certainly true. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any means of exporting this file for your reading pleasure, so you’ll have to make do with the rest of this article, which discusses hands-on experience with a number of different programs before drawing some general conclusions.
On to the Games!Note: where provided, all framerates were measured using FRAPS 1.8, on an AthlonXP 1900 system with 256Mb of RAM and a 64Mb GeForce3 Ti200 graphics card. Resolution was set at 1024x768 resolution with 100Hz refresh rate used in all cases, with 32-bit color where available.
The NVIDIA files state you have to use OpenGL. They aren’t kiddingif you don’t, the game crashes! However, once you have done a little fiddling with the separation and convergence to get the gunsight set at the zero-point, the results are often spectacular. The cockpits are suddenly right there with a palpable feeling of being in them, external views of other aircraft suddenly seem much more alive, and tracers or debris moving towards your aircraft may kick in your ducking reflex. The Pe-8’s 5,000kg bomb graphic is mind-blowing, and the sensation of very low-level flight is greatly enhanced. However, if you’re at higher altitudes and longer firing ranges distances than point-blank, you’ll notice the effects much less. Overall, though, IL-2 was one of the easiest games to set up with the glasses. The biggest persistent glitch comes from the break-up of the padlock-designation triangle into one triangle and horizontally separated triangle fragments to either side.
Framerate Impact: Sitting on the runway in the IL-2 mission “N1”: 20 FPS with 3D on, 25 FPS with 3D off.
Falcon 4.0 is officially listed by NVIDIA as “not recommended for stereo game play”. Getting it tweaked into shape is a reasonable pain in the ass (look on the Frugal’s World forums for extensive help) and even once tweaked there are aspects of the display that are second-rate.
The problems almost all come from the cockpit dials and the HUD, since various bits of them are drawn at different distances and thus they look weird. It is hard to get the HUD tweaked so it is clear (use the “1” view to tweak it) and the cockpit dials are also clear, and the outside world is clear, all at the same time. You’ll need to turn off the padlock designator box or accept that it will be doubled. However…once you have it looking right, the cockpit effect is spectacular.
As in IL-2, you’ll get the feeling that you are sitting in the cockpit. The reflections on the cockpit’s glass bubble suddenly look like reflections on a big curved piece of glass; the prongs on the seat look like they could put your eye out. Checking your six, the radio antenna is suddenly distinct from the tail of the aircraft and the weapons hanging off your wings look amazingly real and in close passes you’ll have a great feel for the location and distance of another padlocked aircraft. Unfortunately, you may still need to toggle the glasses off in order to see to fine-tune matters such as Maverick targets, and getting things working in the first place can be non-trivial.
Framerate Impact: Sitting on the runway in the Takeoff TE mission: 31-34 FPS with 3D on, 51-56 FPS with 3D off.
Flashpoint generally works well. I had trouble getting things to look clear, soldier and vehicle models have an odd quality to them, and getting a useful gunsight is tricky (setting the laser pointer can help). However, once you’ve got it tweaked, it does sing and dance. The weapon in your hands looks quite real, as do the bushes in your face, while the buildings and farther objects take on a noticeable sense of definition. How much you can get out of it depends a lot on how well you can integrate the images, since more separation allows for greater depth of 3D effect without losing the ability to use the gunsight. awk!
Framerate Impact: Start of the “Steal the Car” mission (running Resistance): 26 FPS in 3D, 37 FPS with 3D off.
Again, this works quite well after tweaking. It takes a fair amount of tweaking to get the soldier models to look sharp (instead of fuzzy) and it’s helpful to turn off the game’s gunsight and substitute the laser sight through registry editing. Once set, the results are much as in Flashpoint since the apparent depth and variety of ranges is about the same.
Framerate Impact: Start of the “Farm Day” quick mission: 26 FPS in 3D, 49 FPS with 3D off.
SWAT 3 worked very well with little or no fiddling aside from some fussing to get the gunsight to work. Since nearly everything in the game happens at close quarters, the value of stereo glasses in the game is correspondingly high: virtually everything takes place at ranges where the stereo effect is noticeable, and it’s easier to adjust the game because the action takes place over a smaller set of distances.
Framerate Impact: Start of the Convention Center mission: 45 with 3D, 67 with 3D off.
For the most part, Thief yielded great results. The usual troubles with sights (on the bow) can be overcome with the laser pointer, and the HUD objects in 3D simply won’t come out right. However, as with SWAT 3, the close range of most views ensures that the 3D effect is highly noticeable. Barrels, boxes, and guards look like barrels and boxes and guards, while the ceilings in the smaller corridors feel incredibly claustrophobic. [Framerate impact data not taken.]
Turn off the in-game target crosshair and UT mostly works right out of the box with the pre-sets from NVIDIA. To get things more perfect, start applying the tweaks mentioned in the NVIDIA files, to get rid of coronas and volumetric lighting, which are otherwise not placed correctly in 3D. If you ignore those tweaks, this was the simplest game to get running.
Framerate Impact: Beginning of the Frigate Assault mission (attacking side): 79 FPS in 3D, 110 FPS without 3D.
Mechwarrior 4 was probably the simplest game to get good results with, though this may partly be due to it being one of the later games tested, by which point I’d gotten a lot better at tweaking games. As with flight sims, the sense of being inside a cockpit becomes palpable. As with other ground sims, objects and terrain become more “real” looking, especially once you get close to them. NVIDIA claims there are problems with the HUD and pop-up screens, but I did not notice this.
Framerate Impact: Start of the first instant-action mission: 50 with 3D, varied between 50 and 70 FPS without 3D.
ArmyOps proved, paradoxically, both the simplest and the hardest game to get working correctly. I'd say that 99 percent of the game worked without any effort at all. Tweaking the HUD to work took little more effort. The last 1 percent, inevitably, was the gunsight, which proved nearly intractable. Even registry editing in the laser sight failed to solve the problem of a doubled gunsight! The solution, only arrived at after extensive conversation with E-D’s tech support, was to set a very small stereo separation. With the separation set so it was barely enough to produce a 3D effect, the laser sight was not doubled. Once this solution was in place, the results were much as with other first-person sims. However, the framerate of ArmyOps is low enough before adding 3D that the framerate impact of adding 3D is significant.
Framerate Impact: Standing in the firing position of the rifle range: 15 FPS with 3D, 34 FPS without 3D. Dropping the screen resolution to 640x480 got the 3D FPS up to 25 (and the non-3D FPS up to 50.)
NVIDIA says Delta Force has a lot of problems, and they’re right. I didn’t see all of what they listed because the sky flickered in a manner that was giving me a headache so I soon gave up on it. The usual trouble cropped up with the gunsight, and with the sniper sight. Since the sniper sight is offset from the center of the screen, where the stereo drivers place the laser pointer, there’s no solution to the doubled aim point problem.
Framerate Impact: While looking downrange in the training mission with the sniper scope on: 35 FPS with 3D, 60 FPS without 3D.
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No impact. Nada. Zip. Zero. Why? Steel Beasts doesn’t use hardware acceleration, so there’s nothing for the drivers to process. That means your older DOS (non-DirectX) games won’t do anything unless they are programmed to take advantage of your new graphics card, which isn’t likely. For the same reason, you can’t have text float in front of you in Word. Yes, I tried. Yes, I’m strange.
A demo of X-Plane version 6.2 is included on the CD. After it crashed the first couple times I tried to run it, I gave up on it since I had actual stable programs to test the glasses with.
ConclusionsAre these puppies worth $70 (for the wired version; $90 for the IR version)? It depends in part on what you’ve already got, because while the E-D glasses are often quite cool, they are also neither essential nor always easy to use. If I had to choose between my X-35/X-36 HOTAS stick and the glasses, I’d have to say the stick is more essential to a good flight-sim experience. You’ll also need to have a good graphics card. The FPS data above shows that the 3D effect tends to halve your effective frame rate. Much of this time this isn’t noticeable, but if your system is already borderline on framerate then this may push it over the edge.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a system that is otherwise tricked out, and you’re happy to go through a period of tweaking that may be quite extended, and you have the cash to spare, then you could do a heck of a lot worse than to buy a pair. They aren’t likely to make you a better player, but once tweaked correctly the 3D effect really does add to the sense of immersion for much less expense, and far more flexibility, than building a cockpit to sit in for your favorite game. And, in the end, isn't immersion what we're craving from all these 3D games?
Consider, too, that the problems with using the glasses come not from the technology itself, or the drivers, but from the game’s programming. 3D glasses tech has never taken off before. The E-D offering is widely hailed as the easiest set yet to wear and use. If IF 3D takes off this time, then game programmers will be forced to program things correctly for 3D display. NVIDIA, the current top dog of the graphics card world, seems to be bent on providing great support for stereo (perhaps because they are aware of the lucrative implications of needing a better graphics card to drive it?) In turn, NVIDIA’s connections with game companies might serve to influence them not to cut corners on 3D compatibility. Maybe. Time will tell, and in all honesty I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. However, if game programming support for 3D stereo was better, glasses like these would be much closer to being an essential component of your game computer. Since 3D stereo produces a distinct improvement in immersion, we can hope that it finally does take off.
Tips on Adjusting the GlassesFinally, a few tips on adjusting. If you don’t get results fast, begin by checking for the NVIDIA recommendations if you are using their drivers. Next, use the hotkeys to set the separation to zero (the image should stay the same when you toggle the stereo effect on and off). Now increase the separation so that the stereo effect is just noticeable: so that when you move your head laterally from left to right you get a perception of parallax. Now adjust the convergence until the HUD looks right. Add a little more separation and correct the convergence. Lather, rinse, and repeat, adding in more esoteric techniques (frustrum, backplane, and screen depth) if necessary.
Eventually, you’ll hit a point where you cannot add more separation. Back off a bit from this point to reduce your eye and brain strain a bit, and save it (CTRL-F7). This system assumes that “less is more”: if you have less separation, you have less to compensate for. By increasing the separation slowly and correcting as you go, you are essentially iteratively refining your solution and should find that you’re never so far off that you become lost.
Our thanks to eDimensional for the photos of the glasses.
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