In Theory: Nintendo 3DS

Digital Foundry on what to expect and why it's not a new Virtual Boy.

Nintendo has just announced its new 3DS handheld, set to debut at E3 in June, featuring "games which can be enjoyed in 3D without the need for special glasses". Bearing in mind what has been leaked about the console, and what we know about its innards, what can we expect from this new piece of kit?

This isn't the company's first flirtation with 3D of course. Back in July 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy - a bizarre, table-top portable console that offered a stereoscopic 3D effect via monochromatic screens mounted binocular-style. It proved to be immensely unpopular, brought about complaints of eye strain and died horribly at retail. It's thought to have brought about the end of the Nintendo career of Game Boy creator and original Metroid producer, Gunpei Yokoi.

It's hugely unlikely that Nintendo would repeat the mistakes of its past by utilising experimental tech for its new handheld. The DS became a massively mainstream console, and we can expect that any 3D implementation in its successor will be shorn of potential technological gotchas that will make the experience of playing it anything other than immediate or intuitive.

So what can we expect? The first thing we should realise is that Nintendo is not exactly what you'd call a technology innovator, certainly not at the basic building blocks stage of the process. The company's undoubted genius is in taking existing, proven and cheap technologies, repurposing and repackaging them for the games market.

For 3DS, Nintendo signed a deal with NVIDIA around three years ago to use its Tegra or Tegra 2 IP for use in the new handheld. Note the use of "IP" rather than "chipset": Nintendo has carte blanche to retool Tegra as it sees fit. The bottom line is that it's proven tech, used elsewhere on a variety of devices and a good fit for 3DS.

That being the case, it's more than likely that the company simply has a superb concept for gameplay based on cheap, existing, most likely off-the-shelf parts. In terms of the 3D effect itself, it may be the case that we already have an existing, prototype of the basic idea already available on the DSi. Check this out. Roughly translated into English the game is called Hidden 3D Pictures!, available as DSiWare only in Japan.

Not exactly 3D, but more the illusion of it. Does this hint at the concept behind the new 3DS?

The concept is fairly straightforward. The DSi camera is used to track movement, which is then translated into a real-time perspective-shift in gameplay. It's quite an uncanny effect. It could be argued that there is no 3D effect per se because nothing is popping out of the screen and there's no actual stereoscopy going on here. It works with one eye, obviously. So why new hardware if it can be done on DSi?

Motion estimation based on the camera alone is never going to have the reliability required for a mainstream product expected to perform in all conditions. What works as a very cool tech demo isn't going to perform in all gameplay environments. A camera-based solution won't work in the dark, for example; there's a reason PlayStation Move has glowing bulbous tips on its wand-like controllers.

The solution is simply to use an in-built motion sensor to gauge the current position of the handheld and adjust perspective accordingly. It may seem like something of a gimmick, but then didn't many of us say the same thing about the touch-screen DS or the concept of twin screens to begin with? It's entirely in keeping with Nintendo's philosophy of turning very cheap, existing technology into something brand new.

Of course, there are plenty of sci-fi alternatives we can consider. Proper flatscreen displays are out there that use a range of auto-stereoscopy techniques: full-on 3D without the need for glasses. Website 3dcgi.com has a decent roundup of different displays both large and small that use a range of technologies including lenticular screens, sub-pixel filtering and other experimental techniques.

Typically these screens are of a lower resolution than 2D equivalents and have very limited viewing angles. What makes this an interesting fit for the 3DS is that the latter wouldn't really be an issue for a handheld console, where the unit is operated very close to the user and probably well within the viewing "cone" where the effect would still work.

In this instance, there would be nothing to stop the full-on 3D effect working in concert with other technologies like the motion sensor or indeed head-tracking from the camera - though it's still unlikely that Nintendo would release a machine that didn't work properly in low light or indeed in pitch-black conditions.

All told, Nintendo's intriguing "pre-announcement" this morning is puzzling both in its timing and its content. The anticipation level for this year's E3 just got turned up a notch.

Update #1: There's an interesting piece on GamesIndustry.biz where Blitz Games chief technical officer, Andrew Oliver, offered his spin on the new Nintendo hardware announcement.

"I'm fairly sure it would be based on the parallax barrier method, which is better than lenticular screens and has seen some great advancements recently," Oliver said. "It can also be turned off to give a perfect 2D screen as well. This screen already exists in the Fuju 3D camera and I have a 3D laptop from Sharp with this technology and it works very well for one viewer within a reasonable viewing area for a handheld."

For some idea of how the Fuji screen works, its website offers up some interesting information, while The Register offers up some interesting information on Sharp's 3D laptop. As you might expect from the developers of the stereo 3D Invincible Tiger, Andrew Oliver reckons it may hasten the take-up of 3D on other console systems.

"3D will literally add a new dimension to the DS. New movies such as Avatar have shown that 3D is very popular with consumers," he said.

"The question is: will the new 3DS have new hardware to support the extra level of graphics that will be required to create good 3D visuals? If this is a whole new console, then it should be very exciting for publishers and developers."

Update #2: It looks as though the evidence is mounting up to show that Nintendo has indeed tied up a deal with Sharp for the inclusion of parallax barrier Sharp LCD technology within the new 3DS.

Quoting respected Far Eastern sources Nikkei and Asahi, Engadget talks specifically about the Sharp screens discussed earlier by Andrew Oliver, with Nikkei saying that the screens will be under four inches in size.

In addition, the same source reports a curious-sound "3D joystick" - perhaps a more conventional analogue stick - along with a vibrate function. Improvements to the Wi-Fi card and battery life are also mooted...

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