I got my first look at the final Nintendo 3DS portable gaming system yesterday and found that the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D is pretty tough on my eyes.
The device, which debuts March 27, is Nintendo’s big bet at differentiating itself in portable games. Its purpose is to strike a blow against rivals such as the iPhone as well as take a shot at game pirates.
If it takes off, it could reverse a slow slide in Nintendo’s portable game business and help it survive against the competition of tens of thousands of free smartphone games. The 3DS is also important for the entire video game industry — which will make games for the device — because it offers some hope of growth at a time when the core video game business has been stunted.
I have a feeling that the 3DS is going to sell extremely well at the outset, with the weight of Nintendo’s marketing machine and the whole industry behind it. But I’m not so sure that Nintendo chose the right technology, and that choice may make or break the experience for a lot of people. That’s why the eye-strain issue is the central one for me.
I wouldn’t say that the 3DS made me dizzy the way that really bad stereoscopic 3D can do to you. It just puts a heavy load on your eyes when you’re playing a game for a long period of time. The warning on the games says you should take a 10 minute break every 30 minutes. Nintendo also warned that viewing 3D images by children under six may cause vision damage.
I tried out four different games briefly. None of them were so spectacular that they held me riveted to the screen. The weight on my eyelids felt all the more heavy because of that. Of the games pictured, the best one was Pilotwings Resort, from Nintendo itself. More about that in a second.
Nintendo fortunately realized that the effect on people can be very different, so it put a slider in the middle right side of the upper screen that can adjust the intensity, or depth, of the stereoscopic 3D image. You can turn the 3D off completely or turn it all the way up. Doing the latter makes the depth perception deeper, so you can clearly see the difference between the foreground and the background. The 3D effect is most obvious when there is a still image in the foreground and a moving image in the background.
If you turn the 3D all the way off, then you can give your eyes a rest. But what you then have is a very expensive ($249) Nintendo 3DSi, which came out in 2009 and now sells for $149. If you turn the 3D imagery up, you’ll feel like an invisible beam is shooting out from the 3DS and locking your eyes in place. You can’t move your head or you’ll lose your focus. Basically, that means you’re standing at attention the whole time you’re looking at the screen. That can get tiresome. If you look away to give yourself a break, you lose track and have to readjust your eyes to focus on the image.
The technology used is autostereoscopy, without the cumbersome 3D glasses. The lower screen is a normal touch-sensitive two-dimensional screen, while the upper screen produces glasses-free 3D images. Sharp makes the so-called 3D “parallax barrier” screen. In the past, you had to wear polarizing glasses to separate two slightly offset images. The glasses would block out one image and allow one eye to see a certain image, while the other eye saw another one. That would then trick your brain into putting them together, with the illusion of depth.
The Sharp screen shows a slightly different image to either eye, by switching images on within the screen. The brain combines them into one and perceives the depth. It does this through something called a parallax barrier, which uses a thin transparent layer to block the view of the screen for an eye viewing the screen from one direction, but not the view from the other eye’s direction. It’s kind of like viewing holographic baseball cards. The parallax barrier works fine on small screens such as the 3.5-inch diagonal screen of the 3DS or on cell phones such as an upcoming LG Electronics smartphone. But it doesn’t work on bigger screens because the viewer has to find a relatively small sweet spot for viewing.
The problem with 3D in the theaters and in home TV screens is that everybody’s eyes are different. Some people get nauseous or get headaches. When I saw Avatar in the movie theaters with 3D glasses, my eyes handled that fine, partly because the movie itself was so engrossing. But if my eyes can’t handle the eye strain of the 3DS, even when they could handle the full length of the Avatar film, I would guess the eye strain is going to bother a lot of people. My 10-year-old took a quick look and said, “Whoa, cool. Kind of makes me dizzy.” I gave it to my 14-year-old, who got very excited upon receiving it. She played it for a half hour. “Cool,” she said. “But it made my eyes tired.”
Of the four $40 games I tried out, none really made good use of the 3D effect. The Madden Football game from Electronic Arts might have made sense if you could see the holes in the rival teams defenses and poke through them as a running back. But if that kind of opportunity presents itself in the game, I didn’t notice it.
Capcom’s Super Street Fighter IV 3D edition made the least sense to me, as it’s a side view button-mashing game where you don’t need 3D to thrash your opponent. When you’re paying $40 for a brand new 3DS game, you really want it to wow you and exploit the technology as much as it can.
The Pilotwings Resort flying game had a lot more promise, as it is a 3D flying game. You get to fly around the same WuHu island from Wii Sports Resort and Wii Fit. You can go up in the air in a seaplane, hang glider or jet pack. The game uses the new analog joystick game controller on the upper left-hand side of the lower 3DS screen. You use the analog controller to move your plane left, right, up or down.
You can look down on the 2D map to see where you are and then up at the 3D screen to fly. The problem with the graphics is that the 3D makes the screen look nice when it is in focus. But when you move slightly and the image falls out of focus, you get slightly disoriented and have to take a second or two recover. So the consequence is you can fly much better with the 3D turned all the way off.
The 3DS comes with a few built-in games and features that are a lot of fun. It has two cameras so you can take stereoscopic 3D images and use them in applications. One of the games is Face Raiders, where you can play mini games with faces that you shoot with the camera. That game is one of the best of the batch. You snap a picture of yourself and then it becomes a floating head with helmet and propeller on top. You spin around and shoot little balls at the head as it flies around you. When I was playing this game, I really didn’t think about the eye strain at all. That’s because it was fun.
Another built-in game is Nintendo 3DS Sound, which plays music files and lets you mix your voice into them and produce funny sound effects. It’s cute and will make you smile. It’s one of those games kids can play around with in a social setting and have a great time.
I used the Mii Maker to create my own 3D avatar which is used in the various games. You can create a Mii by snapping a picture of yourself. The program converts the image into a cartoon image which you can then modify. You can also play AR Games, which uses the 3DS cameras to create an augmented reality experience based on a set of playing cards. You point the camera at a card and it causes a certain 3D image to appear on the screen.
In one of the games, a 3D dragon pops out of the two-dimensional card, like a Jack in the Box, and comes at you. You can shift around and shoot arrows at the dragon in its vulnerable spot. But if you move around too much, the 3DS camera loses sight of the AR card. You then have to interrupt the game and refocus your camera on the playing card. Looks nice, and it will make you giggle for a little while. But it’s just a little novelty game.
The 3DS also has an internet browser, but it won’t be operational until May or so, about the same time when Nintendo opens a store that will let you download apps to the device. The SpotPass and StreetPass wireless applications let you wirelessly receive or send data while on the move, even in sleep mode. SpotPass senses wireless hot spots and it will let users access AT&T’s Wi-Fi hot spots at no charge starting in May.
The device is heavier than a DS, weighing in at 8 ounces, and it is .8-inch thick. It has a battery life of about five hours with 3DS games and eight hours playing ordinary DS games.
Now there is a cool game I’ve seen for the 3Ds. In its infinite wisdom, Nintendo did not send it to me. It’s called Steel Diver. I like to think of it as Steel Bathtub. You control a submarine under water and try to maneuver it past a number of obstacles, from caves to shipwrecks. When you look at the game, you have a side view of the submarine as it scrolls forward to the right. When you turn up the depth, it looks pretty cool, creating the feeling that you can see two inches further into the screen.
That makes it feel like you’re looking at a toy submarine making its way through a bathtub, shooting torpedoes at surface ships. This may not be that thrilling for a lot of folks. But I thought it was cool. This may not seem like a great game, but we all have to remember that we’re just at the beginning of the 3DS lifespan.
Hopefully, Nintendo and other game developers are going to get a lot better at making glasses-free 3D games. There are 18 games that will be available on March 27, including the Nintendogs + Cats title from Nintendo itself which is likely to be a hit. I hope the AR Game and the Face Raiders game will inspire developers to create fun and more lasting experiences.
The 3DS is a nice system with a lot of trade-offs. I don’t see the killer app for it yet, although there are a number of cool things you can do with the device and it does have potential.
Right now, I’m looking forward to the Nintendogs+Cats game, which is the sequel to the 2005 Nintendogs game that made the Nintendo DS a hit and go on to sell more than 145 million devices. But I’ll bet that a lot of the people who play that game will turn the 3D off. That’s not my last word on the 3DS, and I’ll have more to say when I get a look at more of the games coming out.