Parallax Dreams

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.

Related stories

3DS lifecycle extends to 2019 with Nintendo Direct surprise announcements

Luigi's Mansion remake, new WarioWare and Bowser's Inside Story bolsters handheld's line-up for the next 12 months

By James Batchelor

No Switch hardware revision this year - Report

Wall Street Journal says company will focus on peripherals to drive sales for hybrid system's second year

By Brendan Sinclair

Latest comments (13)

Stephen Northcott Senior Consulting Engineer 7 years ago
Pretty much covered everything I thought on this issue.

I believe Nintendo see an assault coming on two sides to their business model. Microsoft and Sony now have motion covered, and their console prices are set to come down in the second half of their lifespans.

Apple is aggressively eating into the mobile market place for games, albeit at Sony's expense right now.

Nintendo are well known for their penchant for trying to sell old hardware for as long as possible. They had the colour GameBoy in house long long before they actually started selling it. Preferring to milk the black and white market for as long as possible. They did the same thing then wrt backwards compatibility when they allowed the Colour GameBoy to "colourize" old game cartridges.

Right now I don't think they have a 100% solid plan of exactly how the "3D" DS will work, or if it's even a viable market. But they want to keep consumers and developers on board going forward.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Stephen Northcott on 26th March 2010 8:31am

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 7 years ago
Hmm you raise some good points, somehow I don't feel it is a response to the iPad mind you, I do believe that Nintendo genuinely think it isn't a massive threat. What I was thinking is it's more of a response to the comparatively lower Wii sales last year so they may feel they need to show off something strong to keep peopel interested.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rafael Mateu De Ros Finance Analyst, Electronic Arts7 years ago
Good article, but I'm looking forward to a more in depth analysis of the reasons for Nintendo to leak the announcement before E3. We have seen the study from Flurry Analytics, stating that the iPhone OS achieved a wooping 19% market share in 2009, so my feeling is that Nintendo is feeling the pressure.
Now, the debate is: where they working on this well before Apple OS or are they taking increased risks going early to market due to competition?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (13)
E3 will be here sooner than expected. Let teh hype wars escalate in the mean time!

I pity developers aiming to work on games (now the dev kits were available at GDC) for the DS2 type platform/game though, as they would not have considered the additional 3D element!!

Imagine MGS peacewalker with stereoscopic 3D (albeit, this is unlikely as its developed for the PSP platform)
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Gavin Price Studio Director & Founder, Playtonic Games7 years ago
I think Stephen may be right regarding how long Nintendo have been holding on to this. It wouldn't surprise me if Nintendo has had this ready for a while now and have just been waiting for the right moment (sales drop of current hardware) and/or bulding the compulsive game experience that can sell it. If they have been sitting on it, then it's more likely to be the technology that's already been around for a couple of years. Has the Parallex Barrier solution been around that long and would it now be available at a price that can be achieved for a handheld? (I'm genuinely asking for someone smarter than me to figure this out - I don't know! :p ) If not then it may provide good insight as to what can be expected.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Neil Freeman Retail Consultant 7 years ago
I think that the eye tracking approach fits better with Nintendo's cheap'n'cheerful aproach to hardware than some new cutting edge display system. I also think that the new handheld is likely to follow the DS XL's formfactor which is apparently too large for this new 3D display technology.

As the article suggests eye tracking also fits in with previous motion control announcments. I agree that the announcement is timed before the ipad launch as a large percentage of iPad launch apps are predicted to be games.

This announcement is likely designed to get into the hearts & minds of investors more than the general public as Nintendo must be seen to be taking Apple's recent gaming inroads seriously.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 7 years ago

If they're going to have units over at E3 I don't think there's much doubt that they've had things 'fairly ready' for a while now.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Lorenzo Cicione7 years ago
Very interesting article, as always ;)
I find myself thinking Nintendo might offer a technology similar to this one ( ... don't worry, it's not the DSi headtracking game! lol).
It seems to me as an old tech, with what I think might be a very good quality-cost balance...
Too many limits in autostereoscopic technology right now, as the Sony representative already said...for example, would it be possible to rotate the 3DS (brain training style) with the Sharp Parallex Barrier...?
I don't even mention head-tracking...why would they announce a new console while the DSi/XL can already do that (as seen in the by-now famous video)? Plus, you would have to move around your console, or your head, in order to get the 3D effect...not likely at all.
The technology in the video seems to me as the right technology.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Chris Hayward7 years ago
I just really don't see the worth of 3D on a portable gaming device, surely you'd need to keep very still in order for the 3D effect to truly work (which isn't really going to happen in the backs of car's or on the train etc, which is why the iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad have an inbuilt accelerometer)
If anything I'm more intrigued about the new (ish) Tegra chip they intend on using and more specifically what resolution the games are going to run at, and if its significantly greater than that of the DS already then how (bad) will upscaling look?
What next, 3D Netflix streaming to the 3DS?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rob Stevens Senior Developer/Designer 7 years ago
The 3DS CAN'T be based on eye tracking because this is already possible with the DSi. What's the point marketing a new console by pushing a technology that's already viable on the existing console? It makes no sense whatsoever. And the fact that a screen can make your eyes sore never stopped them selling bucket loads of non-backlit GameBoys for years, so that's not a valid point either. Has everyone but me forgotten how they made your eyes water?

Nintendo mentions 3D and glasses, which suggests stereoscopic visuals. Another thing to remember is that Nintendo has always found stereoscopic 3D a viable game play feature. Remember the VirtualBoy?

And talking about the VirtualBoy brings me to my final point. Nintendo may be on a high now, but they've made some pretty bad decisions and released some ropey products in the past. They are not the “Gods of Strategy” they're being presented as. Nintendo are at their peek right now, sure, but they were at their peek the last time they lost the plot and got pummeled into 3rd place on the home console front.

OF COURSE Nintendo are worried by Apple! And certainly by the iPhone. It has a similar feature set (better even) than Nintendo’s current flagship portable and they feel that they MUST add something new. The portable console market is Nintendo’s bread and butter and they can’t afford to lose it. They still have price in their favor right now, but for how long? When will the iPhone or iPod Touch “Lite” come out that goes head-on with the DS on price? Same features, same price, but a phone with motion sensing to boot. A gaming phone that happens to come with a huge, existing catalogue of cheap, downloadable games.

Nintendo must be scared silly. Silly enough to jump on stereoscopic 3D as their new unique selling point.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Tony Johns7 years ago
Sounds allot like how Nintendo released the name Wii back in 2006, they did this a few months before E3 so the dust can settle and then show us what their ''new baby'' can do in the real thing at E3.

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Tony Johns7 years ago
However this step into the 3D will hopefully be allot more better than Nintendo's last attempt at it back with the Virtual Boy in the mid 90's, please display more than the color or red....
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Eye-tracking (aka the DSi game) is not 3D - it can be done on the DSi as it stands, and requires no new hardware.

There are plenty of 3D screens on the market - and there are small ones that do not require glasses. It would make sense that this is the approach for new hardware.

In my books, the real question is the software. Even launching with a 3D Pokemon & Nintendogs games would be enough to kickstart sales.


As for the timing - its the end of the FY for Nintendo. Next one starts in a week, and no doubt their FY projections will make mention of the 3DS. I think this is why they announced it now.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.