Parallax Dreams

It's not just the 3D bit that's odd about the 3DS - the announcement timing is also curious.

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Nintendo is a company which has always played by its own rules, sticking two fingers up at industry orthodoxy while calmly continuing to make solid profits even through the leanest of times. This is a corporate trait which has only been enhanced by the recent success of the DS and Wii, which have left larger rivals scrambling for a response.

However, even taking Nintendo's rogue mindset into account, there's unquestionably something very strange about announcing the successor to the most successful console of the past decade in a terse press release.

Yet that's exactly how we learned of the existence of the 3DS - without hype or fanfare, Nintendo simply issued a couple of paragraphs to the wires. Its next handheld console will be launched during the financial year to March 2011, it'll be fully backward-compatible with existing DS software, oh, and one little thing - it'll have a 3D display without the need for special glasses.

Bombshell dropped, Nintendo proceeded to airily imply that we can find out more at E3 if we're bothered, and wandered off nonchalantly, leaving the Internet and the mainstream press alike to implode under the weight of speculation, claim and counter-claim.

Already, two distinct camps are emerging regarding the technological details of Nintendo's plans. Japanese newspapers have pointed at display technology created by Sharp called Parallax Barrier, which uses an additional layer of LCD on the display to filter light to the left and right eyes of the viewer, thus creating the illusion of 3D.

It's only suitable for small displays and requires the viewer to be positioned pretty much at 90 degrees to the screen - useless for televisions, then, but not such a bad plan for a handheld console.

Others, meanwhile, have noted the existence of a game on the DSiWare shop in Japan which tracks the position of the user's eyes using the camera in the DSi, then changes the perspective on the screen accordingly. When it works well, this technique is uncanny - it effectively allows you to tilt your head to the side in order to peer in a different direction, giving the impression that the screen is a window onto a different world.

It's not stereoscopic 3D, of course, but it could be even more useful from a game design perspective. Moreover, it won't give anyone headaches and could be accomplished using a combination of cameras and motion-sensing technology - a field in which Nintendo is now extremely accomplished.

It's worth noting at this juncture that whatever Nintendo is doing, it can't be both things. They're mutually exclusive, since one relies on the user's head staying quite still in front of the screen, and the other is based on the idea of moving the eyes relative to the screen.

At the moment, parallax barrier technology is the front-runner in this race, not least since there's an assumption that the Japanese newspapers reporting on it must have some inside line on the issue, rather than simply leaping to conclusions.

Personally, I'm somewhat dubious, on two grounds. Firstly, Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata has previously implied that the DS' successor, along with detailed 3D graphics (it's almost certainly built around a variant of NVIDIA's Tegra mobile chipset), would also include motion-sensing technology. That's impossible if parallax barrier is being used for the screen, as moving around the user or the console would break the illusion of 3D (and worse, cause the left and right eye images to leak into one another, an unpleasant and headache-inducing effect).

Secondly... Well, to be blunt, parallax barrier doesn't feel like a Nintendo technology. This is the company that shoved two low-resolution screens and ancient resistive touch technology into a cheap plastic case and created the best-selling handheld console of the decade, thrashing competition which invested vast sums of R&D in building a full home console experience into a sleek, compact handheld.

It's the company that boosted the processor speed of its ageing GameCube system, threw in a DVD drive and some fairly old-school position-sensing technology for the controller, and wiped the floor with the world's technology giants who had invested in new processing technology, vastly advanced graphics chipsets and cutting edge storage systems.

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