How 3D is Nintendo's "Glasses-Free" Game System?

While at E3 in LA this week, I got to spend some more time playing around with the Nintendo 3DS, the upcoming "glasses-free" 3D version of the popular handheld game system.  Nintendo was showing a few limited applications of the device, including the camera feature, two playable games, and some video demos.   

 

The 3DS looks like the current DS, with two screens – a touch screen on the bottom half of the device, and the 3D screen on top.  One of Nintendo’s challenges will be marketing this device to the general public, since you can’t really appreciate the glasses-free visuals unless you’re eyeballing it live.  This is why, at the press conference, Nintendo quickly dispersed dozens of models into the audience to let attendees check it out first-hand.  During my extended time with the 3DS later, I tried to put myself in the mind of a kid picking it up for the first time – and heard a resounding “awesome!” echo in my brain.  But my grown-up brain had a few quibbles.

Though Nintendo isn’t revealing technical specs yet, the 3D image is rendered on the top screen of the 3DS without the need for the Real-D or Dolby glasses used at homes and theaters.  The 3D image isn’t as in-your-face as one you might find in a theater, but the depth and precision is striking.   Two camera lenses on the back of the device are used when you snap 3D photos, and the effect is mesmerizing (even when I just snapped my outstretched hand). A thumbpad on the left side of the 3DS lets you shift the image to change perspective. 

Impressed by the still images, I dove into the gameplay.  Nintendo showed two  flying games, which feature  a long depth of field.  Zooming around the sky while firing off torpedoes into the distance looked amazing.  The moments when other ships drifted behind mine were wow-worthy. At several points in the games, however, I found my eyes slipping momentarily out of focus – sort of like the feeling I used to have reading those Magic Eye 3D books several years ago.  The Nintendo rep showing me the device explained that “everyone’s eyes are different" (really?), which is why the 3DS includes a slider on the right side of the device allows you to toggle between a 3D and a 2D version of the images.  I supposed the occasional toggling is a small price to play for not having to wear glasses (let alone find them hidden or broken in your sofa cushions). 

Overall, the 3DS is extremely impressive, and surely will be a must-have for grown up game geeks and schoolyard players.  But…it’s just a start.   I’m surprised though that Nintendo didn’t demo games designed more specifically with 3D in mind – rather than 3D versions of familiar franchises.  The Nintendo Wii launched with specially designed titles (like Wii Tennis) that genuinely redefined what videogames can be.  It’s  disappointing that Nintendo didn’t make the same effort when debuting the 3DS.  I’m sure visionaries like Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto and others are dreaming up all new kinds of game experiences that will exploit 3D for its fullest potential.  But for now we’ll have to wait to see if and when they deliver. 

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