The deal means that the more than 1.4 million users of Epic's Unreal Development Kit (UDK) can easily add native stereoscopic 3D support to their work; previous UDK releases supported 3D through TriOrviz, though that technology simply converted 2D images to 3D. RealD's technology, product manager John Matthews tells us, goes much further than that – without requiring too much extra effort from developers.
"We've tried to make integration as easy as possible," he explains. "We hand [devs] our code and they can just drop it in and have everything working in a few days. There is no need for a depth slider, or to set up camera parameters; that's all done automatically [using] a dynamic camera system called AutoCam, and Depth Budget Allocation (DBA)."
AutoCam optimises the game's cameras on every individual frame of the action, making sure that sudden movements – something jumping from off screen into the foreground, say – don't disrupt the 3D effect and break player immersion. DBA, as Matthews explains, ensures that every visible object has depth – even horizons, which often appear flat and unnatural in stereoscopic 3D.
"It corrects a distortion that happens when rendering 3D images on a small screen," he says. "Traditionally what happens is that there is a lot of depth in the front of a scene, but things get flat very quickly.
"For example, in an FPS the player's gun will have a lot of depth and look great, but the world will appear flat. Our tech stretches out the depth, without adjusting the cameras – it's hard to describe in words, but the 3D effect is different than anything you've ever seen before."
The first UE3 game to take advantage of integrated RealD is SOL: Exodus (pictured above), a space combat game for PC from Austin, Texas studio Seamless Entertainment. The new, 3D-supporting version of the game is available now from Steam, and the developer has released a new demo showcasing the 3D implementation. "I wanted to see a space combat game in 3D, and I'm glad they were as excited about it as I was," Matthews says. "I'm a big fan of the genre and saw it as something that could really benefit from 3D.
"In space, you don't have a horizon or the other depth cues we rely on in 2D. You have a difficult time figuring out how big something is because you have nothing to compare it to. But in 3D, everything looks amazing – you can instantly tell that the asteroid next to the space station isn't bigger. It's just closer."
It's a tantalising prospect for game developers, of course, but these days Unreal's appeal spreads far wider than that, with Epic's tech an increasingly popular solution in healthcare, the military, education and other industries that are increasingly looking to 'serious games' as solutions for improving training provision and working practices.
"There is huge demand for 3D in the professional markets," Matthews says. "Those guys have been using 3D since the early '80s when shutterglasses were invented. Education is rapidly growing, and we're seeing schools [use] 3D projectors as effective teaching tools."
There are many, however, who believe 3D is a fad, citing box office takings as evidence of its waning importance to cinema, and pointing to the slow uptake of 3D TVs as proof that 3D gaming will remain, at best, a niche pursuit. Matthews believes that, if anything, it will be the game industry, rather than Hollywood, that helps 3D reach its obvious potential – and that integrating RealD into the hugely popular Unreal Engine will do much to speed up that process.
"Good 3D comes from two areas: display technology, and content," he explains. "Technology is constantly evolving, but even if you had the best 3D display ever produced, bad 3D content would ruin the experience. Imagine spending a small fortune on beautifully sounding speakers, and only having a collection of low-bitrate music. You need the hardware and content to both be great.
"In many ways, gaming is a more engaging experience than going to see a movie. On a technical level, we could manipulate the world in order to make the 3D better and more natural. 3D games add to the immersion, which is what we're all after – and if our longterm goal is the Holodeck, 3D is the next step in that direction."
The integration of the RealD Game Developer Toolkit source code comes in the latest build of the UDK beta, which releases today. Any developer can make use of the technology, regardless of the commercial nature of their products; for more, visit the Unreal Engine website.