id Software Co-Founder John Carmack Talks Experimental Display Technologies and Why Your TV Sucks

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If you’ve used a computer in the last 20 years, chances are you’ve at least walked by someone playing Doom (or you’ve at least, as an HT enthusiast seen the trailer for the movie).

If you’re not geeky enough to know names, though, John Carmack is the wizard behind Doom, and some of the biggest innovations in computer graphics technology since the original game’s release. Every year, at the annual QuakeCon convention, Carmack gives a keynote address on all the new tech he’s been tinkering with, the state of the industry, where he’s gone wrong, and where he thinks he’s going right. If you have any interest at all in how computer graphics work, and where things might be ten years from now, these addresses are always fascinating.

This year’s 3.5-hour marathon features almost an entire hour on display and TV technology, and that’s where home theater fans should sit up and take notice.  We’re all familiar with display lag on flat panels, and adjusting our audio delays to compensate. As a game designer, Carmack laments that in fast moving games he actually has to delay game input and functions to compensate for that, and how much he loves the virtually zero lag on CRT  and DLPs (and how uncommon those are these days). He even goes on to say that he can ping a computer in London faster than he can get a frame of video two feet from your game console to your TV screen.

One of the things he’s been playing with a lot is 3D and head-mounted displays. If you’ve ever wondered about the nitty gritty of how 3D works and the fine balance and engineering that goes into reducing ghosting, then you’ll get a solid 10 minutes about blanking, 120hz, and all the other ups and downs of 3D displays.

Most exciting to me has been the work in bringing another old display gimmick back: VR. The Oculus Rift has made quite the splash on Kickstarter, and has been endorsed by most of the biggest figures in gaming as revolutionary in head tracking. While the test units excel in making a virtual world, though, the display panel isn’t quite up to snuff. A 1280×800 panel is shared between two eyes with side-by-side 3D, resulting in about 480p resolution. Now keep in mind, this thing is still in development, and technology is always advancing. For those of us who lack the throw or the wallspace for our ideal home theater screens, I know I can’t be the only one dreaming of my own virtual IMAX strapped to my head.

According to Carmack, panels that can achieve 1080p per eye are expected to be in testing before the end of the year. Once coupled with some processing to compensate for the distortion of the optics, who knows what might be possible for those stuck in the itty-bitty living space? Taking that to its ultimate extreme, he’s also been working with direct retina painting by lasers, the problems of maintaining focus with a moving eyeball, and how the parts suppliers freaked when they found out what he was trying to do with it.

Like Steve Wozniak before him, John Carmack is an amazing Renaissance tinkerer, who is excited about learning, excited about discovery, and very objective when it comes to himself and his work. The techniques and technologies they helped develop are part of what makes our movies, and the video technology AV enthusiasts enjoy every day. I find this annual brain pick to be amazing every time, and I highly recommend that you check out the whole thing.

The display stuff occupies mostly the second hour of the talk, so skip ahead if you’re not a gamer:

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  • Loodbat

    If we already balk at wearing glasses for 3D, are we, collectively, going to lining up for our own helmet to wear for entertainment purposes? Not being snarky, just honestly wondering if that’s going to be feasible market-wise, outside of a tiny niche of people.

  • Jeff Kleist

    First off, the resistance to wearing glasses for 3D, is IMO highly overestimated. The people who don’t like it are extremely loud, and that causes them to be overcounted. The big problem had with 3D was the $150 a pair issue.

    Sony sold out of their OLED-based HMDs lickity split, so there is obviously a market for this kind of stuff.

    Don’t forget that this thing is being developed as a VR headset with a hacker bent, but its lightweight, and future 1080p versions are what make it interesting to the movie lover. In my house, and in most apartments, I couldn’t get more than 80-something inches on a projector, but if I can accomplish a 40-50 foot equivalent screen and perfect, ghost-free 3D with the goggles? If other people aren’t over, and eyestrain doesn’t prove to be an issue (plus the fact that I wear TWO pairs of glasses for 3D), I’d much rather goggle up for the experience of my dreams than settle for 60″ any day :)