Eric Johnson

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Cheap Mobile Games? Bah! Meet zSpace’s $4,000 3-D Monitor.

zSpace 3D monitor heartWhen done well, video games have the power to take players out of their own physical world and make them believe they’re somewhere else. The business of consumer gaming, though, has shifted away from pricey and immersive consoles in recent years, toward cheap and casual mobile and social platforms.

So, it’s at once refreshing and puzzling to see something so trend-buckingly different as the zSpace, a 3-D monitor developed by a “virtual-holographic computing” company of the same name in Sunnyvale, Calif.

ZSpace execs said the monitor is mainly intended for non-gaming uses, but at both the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month and at zCon — a company-run conference in Mountain View, Calif., this week — the potential for games was on prominent display. The problem is that this (admittedly cool) new hardware is very, very expensive right now: You can pick up a monitor, stylus controller and 3-D glasses for a cool $3,995 online.

Here’s how it works: Those 3-D glasses have five passive markers that signal four cameras in the 24-inch LCD monitor. By moving one’s head in any direction, the picture on the screen adjusts, as if the objects displayed within it occupied real, three-dimensional space.

Then, using a wired stylus with three physical buttons, users see a straight (virtual) line connecting the object in their hand to a mouse-like dot onscreen. To use a simple example, a cube on the screen can be looked at from multiple angles using just the glasses, then picked up, brought closer or moved farther away, rotated or moved somewhere else using the stylus.

The video below shows the first part of that equation, as I pushed my phone camera up against the glasses lens and then moved the glasses back and forth in front of the monitor, traveling around a 3-D diagram of a heart.

At its high price point, the zSpace is currently best suited for enterprise and educational customers seeking to, for instance, visualize data in three dimensions or (as in the video above) virtually study the structure of real-world objects.

However, the company pointedly brought in a handful of video game professionals for its conference to get developers thinking about games on the monitor. Indeed, the most impressive demo on display at zCon — also found at GDC — was of the game engine Unity running its demo game AngryBots in 3-D. Using the stylus to move a soldier and shoot from a top-down view, players could physically duck down to help their soldier “see” through a window.

photo (11)At its conference, zSpace seemed confident enough in its future that it didn’t require its speakers to be cheerleaders for the technology. On Monday, virtual reality expert David Nahon of Dassault Systems pointed out that plenty of others’ stabs at VR in the past have failed despite cool hardware.

“If you don’t have content, you can have the best container, and it’s going to fail,” Nahon said, adding that zSpace currently lacks a “killer purpose” like Wacom’s Cintiq drawing tablets, which are aimed at professional artists and can cost between $999 and $3,699.

The following morning’s keynote address, by Guitar Hero co-creator Charles Huang, barely mentioned the zSpace at all, shoehorning the device into a single slide at the end of the presentation. Instead, Huang spent most of his time talking about Guitar Hero, a prominent example of a great game that led consumers to buy new hardware — those plastic guitars.

During a Q&A following the presentation, Huang speculated that shooter and battle games played by hardcore gamers will drive adoption of the zSpace. That niche, he said, has proven willing to drop thousands of dollars on top-of-the-line gaming PC hardware from companies like Nvidia.

Huang also humorously noted that games have supplanted pornography as the standard-bearer for what new technologies consumers are willing to adopt, since they created the strongest revenue stream on Facebook, Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

Both zSpace CTO David Chavez and CEO Paul Kellenberger said independently that consumer games are not a top priority for the company right now. Kellenberger said educational games may be a proving ground, though, since colleges and universities are among their current target audiences.

Kellenberger said he expects the price of the zSpace to fall below $1000 within 18 to 24 months, and that when that happens, it’s only a matter of time until consumer games resembling the Unity AngryBots demo become a serious use case. Whether developers will agree with that assessment remains to be seen.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus