Nintendo CEO reveals how company toiled for years on 3DS concept

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Satoru Iwata, chief executive of Nintendo, proudly waved the Nintendo 3DS on stage this week as the company showed off a surprisingly well received handheld game player that can depict movies and games in 3D without the annoying 3D glasses. We caught up with Iwata at the end of the E3 video game convention to talk about how Nintendo created the handheld, which was the talk of the show. Here’s the transcript of the interview.

VB: Tell us how Nintendo developed the 3DS.
3D is nothing new for Nintendo. We’ve been working on the challenges for a number of years. As you know, about 15 years ago, we tried 3D with the Virtual Boy handheld. It didn’t work that well.

About 10 years ago, when we were launching the Nintendo GameCube console, 3D technology was already available in the form of parallax barrier. We experimented to see what would happen if an LCD display could do 3D using the processing power of the GameCube. The GameCube had the ability to show images from the left eye and the right eye, shifted so that they could produce a 3D effect. The circuitry had been designed with the possibility of using a parallax barrier LCD. We experimented with Luigi’s Mansion, a launch title for the GameCube, to see if it would work. And the result was appealing. It showed depth in the view of the gaming world. But when we reviewed its marketability, we had to consider the problem of consumers having to purchase displays. Game hardware was already one purchase. And the TVs were not cheap at that time. So we thought it would not be practical.

The next tryout was with the GameBoy Advance handheld. With that, we could just attach a 3D display to the GameBoy Advance. The prototype is still inside my chest drawer. When we saw 3D images on the GBA SP, we saw the high resolution wasn’t good and the parallax barrier display available was not functioning well. The graphical processing power of the GBA wasn’t good enough. So we had to give up on that idea because it wasn’t appealing enough to consumers.

We started working on the Nintendo DS. During that development, we never thought of doing 3D. One of the reasons was our failed experiments. Since we introduced dual screens including one touchscreen, we thought we couldn’t afford to add anything more. As soon as the development of the DS was completed six years ago, we immediately started working on the successor, which is today called the Nintendo 3DS. But even then, we did not think of doing 3D at the outset.

The first challenge was to beef up the capabilities of the DS. About two years ago, someone suggested to us that we should incorporate 3D into our design. But a lot of people opposed the idea. The sentiment was that we had failed so many times. We decided to give it a try. The opinion of the developers changed as soon as they saw the images. It was more attractive.

We have seen improvements in three major areas. Before, we didn’t have high enough resolution for LCDs. We didn’t have sufficient functionality with the parallax barrier technology. And now there was more processing power that could power the photorealistic displays. The total combined image then was drastically improved. At that time, (Shigeru) Miyamoto (Nintendo’s top game designer) was thinking the same thing. The time had come for us to do the 3D video game system.

What was great luck for us was that the movie Avatar became a big hit a year after we decided to work on the 3DS. The TV manufacturers also decided to make 3D a big part of their newest TVs, just as we were preparing to launch at E3. It was great luck because two years ago, when we made the decision, it was just impossible to predict these things. Looking back, all of our work paid off. You have trial and error. But we were able to track the progress and predict when the technology would be mature.

VB: How confident are you that the technology is ready? Is it easy to make the 3.5-inch screens? Do you have good supplies? Could these be used in much larger TVs?

SI: We have to carefully determine the supplies and adjust our launch date as necessary. I have heard that all of the pending issues have been fixed.

VB: I like the way it looks. One concern I have is the sweet spot. You have to move the screen around to find the sweet spot and then you can’t move. (To be sure, the quality in the sweet spot is amazingly good). Is that a basic trade-off for not having 3D glasses?

SI: From now until launch time, we won’t see a change in the screen technology. As for the size of the sweet spot, we have already completed experiments by playing the actual games on the 3DS. The size of the sweet spot is already within the acceptable range.

VB: You decided to make a lot of other improvements. You added improved wireless, an accelerometer and gyro, three cameras for 3D photos, and faster graphics processing. It looks like this is a very good answer to the iPhone and the iPad. Did that cross your mind, that you had to do something better than the iPhone?

SI: (Laughs). I personally am a user of iPhones and iPods. I think of what these mean to me as a competitor. But I never thought of them when we were designing the 3DS. If some people think that this might be the answer to the iPhone, then that should simply be the result. That is, it was not our goal to do that, but if people think that, it is the result. We never try to think in terms of any competitive product or company. If you do that, you just focus on a certain narrow area. Rather, we should think much more broadly. Anything that takes the time of a consumer might take away their interest in gaming, or their energies away from our products. Anything that does that should be our competition. We should not narrowly define our competition as Apple, Sony or Microsoft. We have to think of what kinds of experiences we can create that only Nintendo can create, and what no other companies can create. So the result is the Nintendo 3DS. If you say it is a solution against what Apple offers today, it is also a solution against all of the other competition.

VB: Are you concerned about how much this will cost? There are so many new things in it, I wonder if you will price it above the normal range where you price your handhelds? Your prices are usually below Sony’s.

SI: I have to refrain from talking specifically about the price point. What I can confirm is that, in terms of the production costs, it will cost more than the costs for the Nintendo DS today. Having said that, we believe we will produce enough value worthy of the production cost. We do not think we have to sell the products below cost.

VB: Do you think this screen technology with no glasses can be used for big TVs?

SI: With this parallax barrier technology, the LCD must be a certain distance away from the screen. It also needs a certain viewing angle. We think it is not a great match for the home TV set. As one of the engineers, I can anticipate that someone will invent a 3D TV that does not require you to wear 3D glasses. As far as today is concerned I do not think they can do it well. We need an invention to make it happen. If you ask me when, I have no idea.