Date: April 2016

We were first contacted by Henrik from Pinball Dreams about his plans for 3D translites back in January, but it wasn't until we made the trip to Austria for their Championship Series final that we were finally able to get our hands on one to review.

The concept of 3D translites is nothing new of course. Designs using the lenticular method of passive 3D have been around for decades, and they have been occasionally available for certain Sega and Stern designs as optional extras ever since Star Wars Trilogy.

But Pinball Dreams have licensed past Williams titles through Planetary Pinball Supply so they can make new 3D translites for classic dot-matrix pinballs, and Medieval Madness is the first to be released.

The 3D Medieval Madness translite
The 3D Medieval Madness translite Click to expand

The lenticular method of producing a 3D effect has positives and negatives. The greatest plus point is that it doesn't require the viewer to wear any special glasses in order to see the depth effect. It can also be made almost any size, and in printed in full colour.

The negatives are a relatively high cost of production compared to printing a 2D image, the limited range of angles for which the 3D effect works, a reduced horizontal resolution, and the special handling required - the translite needs to be kept flat and shouldn't be rolled-up.

The lenticular method takes a number of images, interlaces them into fine vertical strips and places the lenticular lens over the top (or the image is printed directly onto the back of the lens, depending on the technology used).

The lens is a fine vertical convex strip which sits on top of the interlaced strips of images. As the viewer moves left and right the lens shows each of these strips in turn, with the lens shape ensuring the sequential images blend smoothly together rather than jumping from one to the next.

The interlaced images can be the same object shot or rendered from different angles (as in this case), or they can be totally different images so the picture changes completely as the viewing angle varies.

This works fine for a certain range of angles, but if you move so far off-axis that the lens run out of images, the effect breaks down and you start seeing ghosting. Also, because the strips are printed in vertical slices, there is no vertical 3D effect. So moving your head up and down makes no difference.

So those are the benefits and limitations from using the kind of lenticular 3D process used in the Medieval Madness translite.

For use in a pinball game, the system works well. The main viewer is usually standing directly in front of the translite with only limited movement left and right, and virtually no vertical movement.

So how do you create the three-dimensional views of a pinball translite so that they can be interlaced and printed behind the lens?

Obviously simply shooting the flat translite image from different angles isn't going to produce a 3D effect, so there's going to be some work involved.

One method is to create a 3D scene of the translite in a modelling package and then move the camera left and right to get your perspective images. However, recreating a scene as complicated and nuanced as the Medieval Madness translite would be a massive task, and even the you wouldn't end up with exactly the same image.

So the other way is to 'slice' the existing image into a number of layers and position them in 3D space, so the background elements are further away from the camera than the foreground ones. Depending on the composition it may be necessary to add artificial blur to the more distant layers to increase the impression of depth.

This is the approach taken here, but even that's not as easy as you might think.

Artwork used on modern games is often (but not always) digitally created, built up in layers which can then be unpicked, separated, spaced at various depths and shot from the required range of angles.

However, the translite artwork for Medieval Madness - and similarly popular games from that era - was mostly hand-drawn. The different layers need to be created from the existing artwork.

So you would need to cut around the King and his falcon, and place them on the front layer. The trolls are behind him, as is the drawbridge, so they would need to be cut out and placed on a second layer. There will probably be other elements on that layer at around the same z-depth. You then repeat that for all the layers you need to create the illusion, adding blur to the more distant ones as necessary.

That's a lot of cutting out, but even that's not the end of the job.

Once you have cut around the King, there's a hole in the remaining artwork. That's not a problem in a flat image, but once you move your head left and right to look 'behind' the King, there's no artwork there, just the hole. So you need to paint in the missing areas around the edges of each layer. The greater the spacing between layers, the more movement you get, and the more filling-in you need to do.

Anyway, that's how the lenticular system works, and it gives your some idea of the technology, the skills and the work which goes into producing a 3D translite.

So how did Medieval Madness turn out?

To find out, we took a sample and put it in a Medieval Madness remake machine, since that has the brightest and most even backlighting. This also has the side-effect or adding the Williams logo back into the game, since that is missing on the remake translite.

The 3D Medieval Madness translite in the game
The 3D Medieval Madness translite in the game Click to expand

The translite is supplied with to us with a separate paper backing sheet and no instructions. We weren't sure whether the backing sheet was just for protection or supposed to be fitted with the translite to act as a diffuser.

The translite has a thin white layer on the back, so we tried it without. Wrong! The LEDs could be seen through the artwork, so we refitted with the backing sheet in place.

Medieval Madness has a white plastic lightbox behind the translite, both in the original games and this remake. With the backing sheet installed, the translite was now quite a bit thicker than the original and it became something of a struggle to get the four black plastic edging strips back over this thicker glass, translite, backing sheet and lightbox sandwich.

We managed it eventually and then found that the remake has zero tolerance if the light lightbox isn't in just the right place. That 'right place' is actually slightly overhanging the bottom of the glass, otherwise the backglass just won't go back in.

It's not the fault of the new translite as such, and we got there in the end, but it took a lot longer than expected and caused some collateral damage to the game's side rails, so be careful if you perform this upgrade.

The immediate impression is, well... impressive. You don't need to move around to see the obvious depth effect, and the colour reproduction is just excellent. You get a far, far better effect when using stereoscopic vision, but this video gives you a taste of the 3D performance.

So you can see how attractive the translite looks in the game, and it certainly does, if you'll excuse the pun, add another dimension to the game's artwork.

But that's not to say there aren't any issues with it, and this wouldn't be a proper Pinball News review unless we examined them.

The lenticular process, by its very nature, reduces the horizontal resolution of the image, producing very fine but still visible vertical lines.

The lines produced by the lenticular process
The lines produced by the lenticular process Click to expand

From the player's perspective these aren't an issue and the benefit of the depth effect more than compensates.

Whether it's the level of detail in the King or the need to read the signposts in front of the castle we're not sure, but it seems as though the focal plane of the image is slightly behind the King, with the focus more on the Trolls.

The trolls seem more in focus than the King
The Trolls seem more in focus than the King Click to expand

Beware of Trolls - they're sharp
Beware of Trolls - they're sharp Click to expand

The effect is that the King appears slightly fuzzier than you'd expect.

The range of viewing angles from which you get an unblemished 3D effect is a little restricted, especially at the far corners of the translite. The top left corner is especially prone to ghosting, turning this...

The top left corner of the original Remake translite
The top left corner of the original Remake translite

...into this...

Ghosting produces a muddled image
Ghosting produces a muddled image Click to expand

Finally, there are a few errors in the artwork, mostly around the decisions about which layer various objects should appear on.

The pointy castle turret in the image above becomes detached from the tower behind, as does the chap leaning out the window. The equivalent castle on the opposite side has similar issues, as you can see in this animation (which might take a while to load, as it's a large image).

A rendering of the 3D effect
A rendering of the 3D effect

There is also a black line behind the title which you can also see in the picture of the top left corner and the animation above.

But these quibbles aside, the 3D translite is not only an imaginative and attractive way to enhance the game's appearance, it's a great illustration of the possibilities in store for future titles. Pinball Dreams have announced that Whitewater and Attack from Mars will be their next releases, with Theatre of Magic and Revenge from Mars also in the pipeline.

Considering the work and processes involved in making these, they're a very reasonable upgrade, even if you already have a perfectly good translite in your game. Pinball Dreams sells these for €195 ($222/£156) while Bay Area Amusements has them for $199, which is only around 40% more than the cost of a standard 2D reproduction translite.

They do need to be shipped flat and - being translite-sized - are an awkward shape, which might mean picking one up from a show is a better option.

The only danger is that, like ColorDMDs, once you have a 3D translite in one of your games, you'll eventually have to do them all.

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