It's not just the promise of 3D that's odd about Nintendo's 3DS - the timing of the announcement is also curious
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 '11, 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.
Does that seem like a double act that's likely to be followed with a new handheld system based on a largely untested display technology which is currently available only in one laptop, one camera and a couple of Japan-only mobile phones? Does it seem likely that everything Nintendo has learned about the value of solid, old technology which works reliably and provides easy, universal access to a wide audience would be thrown away in favour of a 3D solution that - although vastly improved on past glasses-free technology - still requires the user to keep their face at a specific angle and distance from the screen, and risks causing eyestrain and headaches?
That's not to say that it's impossible that Nintendo has caught the 3D bug, much as many media companies around the world seem to have in the past year. The company may have seen new versions of the parallax barrier technology which solve the existing problems, and grasped this as an opportunity too good to miss, even if it means abandoning its former model for technological development. These things are possible. They're just unlikely. We won't know for sure until E3, but it would be best not to treat parallax barrier like a done deal.
Returning briefly to the question of the press release itself, a further question raises its head - why announce the 3DS now? Why couldn't the firm wait until E3 and surprise us all? Could it be that some section of the media had found out about the system, and were preparing to spoil the surprise - so Nintendo decided to pre-empt them? Perhaps it's a PR gamble in itself, designed to create speculation and hype over the coming months - essentially trying to cut off a slice of Apple pie, having seen the fever pitch of speculation which attended the unveiling of the iPad?
Or does it have something to do with the iPad itself? The news was announced less then two weeks before Apple's tablet system, already creating huge excitement in the game development community, finally reaches users' hands. It's hard to imagine that very many people will buy iPads purely for games, but the immense success of games on the App Store implies that games will be a consideration, at least, for many of the system's purchasers. Is this Nintendo's way of saying, hang on - we've got something even more exciting in the works?
Before scoffing that it seems unlikely that Nintendo would regard the launch of the iPad with apprehension, consider this. Statistics widely circulated this week suggest that in terms of US game software sales, in the past year the iPhone has leapfrogged the PSP to become Nintendo's number one rival in the handheld device space. Its growth has come at the expense of both Nintendo and Sony, each of which has lost market share as the iPhone has grown. iPhone OS devices now make up 20% of handheld game software revenue, and while the DS' share is still a massive 70%, that's down from 75% last year. Assuming the iPad is a success (it's already enjoyed more pre-orders than the iPhone did at launch, according to some sources), those figures could be even more stark next year.
The timing of Nintendo's announcement, in other words, couldn't be more prescient. Few people will put off a planned iPad purchase on the hope of an amazing 3D Nintendo console later in the year, but in the face of Apple's big day, a little heated speculation and hype can't hurt. This isn't the kind of PR game that Nintendo is used to playing, but the company knows that its new rival is the unrivalled king of hype, speculation and marketing muscle. Whatever technology the 3DS eventually ends up using, the timing of this curious press release suggests that Nintendo knows perfectly well what the device's biggest challenge will be.