I stood on the threshold of the hotel room in April, 1995. Mike Weksler, then technical editor of Computer Gaming World, pushed me gently into the room. We’d just crashed the private suite of a secretive company developing a new type of chip to accelerate 3D graphics for home PCs. The company’s name: Rendition.
What I saw took my breath away. A scene from Paypyrus Design Group’s NASCAR Racing game looped on a PC screen, showing a stock car rolling on a track, in all of its 640 x 480 pixel, bilinear-filtered glory. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world of globally-illuminated, pixel-shaded, high resolution graphics, but at the time, I’d never seen anything like it. Never mind that what I saw was a pre-rendered loop. It looked fantastic.
Rendition, an early consumer 3D graphics pioneer, rented the hotel suite, and showed off several games that would eventually run on the company’s Rendition Vérité 3D accelerator, which wouldn’t ship until late 1995.
Ground Zero of the 3D gaming revolution happened in late April, 1995, at the ninth Computer Game Developer’s Conference. At the same conference, I found myself sitting idly in the lobby, when someone called out my name. I looked up, and this guy introduced himself as Danny Sanchez, a product manager at Diamond Multimedia. He told me he’d read my stuff in the magazine, and thought I should come with him to see… something.
Danny dragged me into a large, darkened conference room. Someone spoke on stage, and a large projector cast a ghostly light onto the conference room screen, showing real-time 3D animation. The on-screen animation looked crude, even by the standards of the PC games of 1995. Even so, the graphics looked different. The presenter moved through the world, looking at the characters and objects from different angles, showing the possibilities inherent with real-time 3D.
Games in 1995 lived in a 2D or 2.5D world; Doom shipped in 1993, just two years before, representing the state of the art in PC 3D, all rendered by the CPU. Pixelated and crude, gamers loved Doom for the gameplay, and the almost-3D nature of the world. Many games of the day arguably looked better, due to lovingly handcrafted 2D graphics. Designers who created 3D games, particularly flight and vehicle simulators, had to live with the limitations of CPU rendering. The 3D grahics of the day featured flat-shaded polygons, hard edges, and simplistic lighting.
Even after 3dfx and Rendition cards shipped, early 3D games still looked pretty crude compared to the best hand-drawn 2D games. The writing was on the wall, however. By the end of the decade, more than 50 hardware companies tried to cash in on the 3D accelerator gold rush. Only a few succeeded, eventually fading to just two companies, AMD and Nvidia.
Now we’re witnessing the start of a new gold rush: virtual reality. Will Smith, formerly editor of Tested and Maximum PC, likens today’s VR hardware and software to the technology of 1994. He’s not wrong, though 1995 might be a better comparison year. When you compare real-time VR image quality to the best available 3D titles, VR doesn’t hold up well. Polygon counts, texture resolution, and lighting appear simplistic relative to a game like The Division or Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Given pricing, today’s VR hardware appeals mostly to early adopters. Oculus Rift goes for $599, which doesn’t compare well in terms of pricing to early 3D hardware. A 3dfx Voodoo One card shipping in 1996 cost roughly $399 at launch, which translates to about $615 in 2016 dollars. By those standards, an Oculus Rift at $599 doesn’t seem far off the mark. The HTC Vive seems pricier, but ships with sensors and controllers.
One lesson learned from the 3D wars is the need for a unifying force. When the first 3D hardware shipped, the chip makers supplied their own programming methods, so game companies either needed to choose, or devote resources to supporting multiple programming models. Some companies supported completely different programming models, such as Nvidia’s early NV1 and its use of quads instead of triangles.
The unifying force of the day proved to be Microsoft. Windows 95 shipped in Fall, 1995, roughly six months after the 1995 CGDC. The first iteration of Direct3D, the result of Microsoft’s acquisition of UK company RenderMorphics, became the primary graphics standard for 3D on the PC.
The good news today is that cross-platform development is simpler, and API standards have mostly converged to either Direct3D or OpenGL / Vulkan. Both those standards will likely evolve to better support VR and AR, which will accelerate developer acceptance. However, VR and AR won’t achieve mainstream status until costs come down and the tech improves.
Despite the costs and customer confusion, the excitement is palpable, and a bunch of companies are diving into the fray, both hardware and content creators. We’ll no doubt see lots of failed experiments and false starts along the way. Make no mistake, though: virtual reality and it’s close cousin, augmented reality, are here to stay. All that’s in doubt is what VR and AR will look like in 20 years, and which companies will be left standing.[Note updated to reflect the launch price of Voodoo 1. H/T to Brian Hook.]