Published January 25, 2011
Hundreds of millions have been spent on 3D, and it just isn't flying off shelves. Can Nintendo save it?
Until now, the public's reception of 3D video has been, well, flat. But come March, a new way to experience 3D video could turn things around in the form of Nintendo's new 3DS portable gaming machine. And that's coming from someone who's been skeptical of 3D since it was introduced.
3D's critics have pointed to the additional expense of the sets and the paucity of programming. Then there's the necessity of having to wear goggles -- even the inexpensive colored-lens versions used in theaters, which are fine when you're immobile in a movie theater and glued to your seat for 3 hours, but impractical for normal TV watching at home.
All this is true, but rarely do people point to the primary and rather embarrassing reason 3D hasn't taken off: It doesn't look that good. In fact, it doesn't even look realistic. Sure, the falling-ashes scene in "Avatar" is intoxicating, and the floating lights in "Tangled" are mesmerizing, but most of the time the 3D effect distorts the image in a way that appears fake, even surreal.
So what makes the Nintendo 3DS different? It uses 3D in an entirely different way.
In the first place, it has a small, 3.5-inch 3D screen that doesn't require special glasses (and a second 2D touch screen at the bottom of the 3DS is just over 3 inches). In the second place, it's designed for gaming, which requires a special kind of concentration. And it's that concentration -- which is different from passively watching a movie or sporting event -- that is also ideal for focusing on and experiencing the 3D effect.
The 3DS creates the 3D effect by presenting a slightly different image to each eye, which our perception then combines into a three-dimensional picture. However, this works only if your eyes see the images in sync and that requires being at a precise angle to the screen (there's also a slide at the side of the screen to adjust the picture or turn off 3D). This sweet spot would be a major drawback if you were watching a movie in the living room: Only a few people on the couch would be able to see the 3D effect, and every time you moved your head slightly to reach for a drink or make some pithy remark to your couchmate the picture would change and flip out of focus.
But when playing a video game, the situation is entirely different. You're trying to focus intently on the monsters or evildoers on the screen, so keeping your head in one position seems more natural.
Moreover, the Nintendo 3DS really makes 3D appealing by using it in a unique way in conjunction with augmented reality programs. Augmented reality is a catchphrase for software that puts an overlay of information on whatever you happen to be looking at. Aim your device at the building across the street, for example, and you'll see not only the live picture of the Empire State Building but also a blurb about its history and information on how many floors it has (102) superimposed on the picture.
Nintendo has simplified the idea for games. In one example, you aim the device's 3D camera at a special card on a table and a dragon appears to pop out of the table. To defeat the monster, you have to aim at various parts of the beast and move around it -- and around your coffee table. So not only are you moving in virtual space on-screen, you're also moving in real space.
This is a whole new experience and offers up the potential for a wide variety of games and programs. The 3DS has a built-in gyroscope and accelerometer, as do many mobile devices these days, but when it's combined in this way with 3D it creates an entirely different experience. It is much more engaging that other attempts at augmented reality programs. It could be used in conjunction with a program like Google Street Views, for example, to give tourists a 3D view of say, Notre Dame, with information on its history and the architecture. Or it could be used by people playing a game of hide-and-seek combined with virtual hits and targets.
When it debuts on March 27th for $250, Nintendo will include two augmented reality games with the player. Not every game, by the way, works well in 3D. Fighting games, for example, tend to make me dizzy and will remind parents that there's a warning against children younger than 6 playing games in 3D, to prevent the tech from affecting the development of their eyesight. On the other hand, games like submarine-based Steel Diver seem perfectly suited to the technology.
Ultimately, the real breakthrough of the Nintendo 3DS isn't in the basic technology it uses but rather in showing how that technology can be used in used in a new and innovative way. And along the way, it might just save 3D.