Thoughts on a brief test of the Nintendo 3DS: You’ll want it, but not for the reason you think

Today I got to try out a Nintendo 3DS at a local Best Buy. Of course, the only thing I could try out was the demo of Pilot Wings Resort, which reminded me a lot of Wii Sports Resort’s flying game.

A side-on view of the 3DS in 3D Mode
A side-on view reveals the console's greatest weakness: limited viewing angles, and also offers an insight into how the 3D effect works
Anyhow, I gave it a shot, and found the 3D effect to be rather impressive for a glasses-free solution. There was no flickering that is indicative of an active-shutter system, or noticeable dimming of the screen when switching from 2D to 3D. The only problems I had were finding a proper viewing angle, and a proper 3D setting. At the highest volumetric setting, the image didn’t quite look right and constantly confused my vision, but just below that worked perfectly for me. This likely was one of the reasons that Nintendo chose a slider over a simple button. This also gave some insight into how the glasses-free 3D effect works. Viewing the screen from an extreme side angle and messing with the volumetric slider showed two separate images diverging further apart, revealing the parallax barrier that allows the 3D image to be rendered. Another interesting thing that I noticed was that in 3D mode the images weren’t noticeable degraded in resolution. Compared to 2D mode, the images seemed as if they were softer, or at least anti-aliased. Also, when pointing a camera at the screen in 3D mode (from the usual viewing angle) the image merely appears 2D.

A photograph of the Pilotwings Resort opening screen in 3D mode
3D mode appears as a simple 2D image if viewed with a camera, or only one eye open
I found one problem with the 3D images produced by the 3DS, and that is that it didn’t improve depth perception. Perhaps it was just the game, but I frequently had trouble judging the distance between my character and the targets I was supposed to fly through. It was rather disconcerting, and I’m not sure if it would actually help or hinder gameplay. I’d like to compare this to gaming on other 3D systems and using other 3D games on the 3DS before I pass judgement on it, however.

I also appreciate Nintendo’s truth in advertising regarding the 3D effect of their screen. Rather than most advertisements you see for 3D products (TVs, films, etc), where the images jump “out” of the screen, the 3DS ads show you a world of depth inside the screen. Instead of the images popping out (which, more often than not, they don’t do in 3D movies/TV shows/games), they just have depth. This is exactly the effect the 3DS accomplishes, and the advertising Nintendo put out did an excellent job of establishing realistic expectations for the console.

The part of the console that I found most interesting was the introduction of the analog pad. Analog controls of some sort (including those that merely emulate the effect of an analog control, like a touch screen) are pretty common these days, so it’s no surprise that Nintendo decided to add one to the 3DS. This is certainly a step-up from the analog nub present on the PSP: it’s located in a more ergonomic location, its rubber coating prevents slippage, the concave design is comfortable against the thumb, it’s sizable not to be a pain to use, and the managed to get the amount of resistance just right so as to allow discrete levels of control. In some ways, it was almost nicer than the analog stick present on some gaming consoles (and third party controllers). This analog pad is more than likely the feature to be used by more games, and to be better effect, than the 3D screen. It is significantly more comfortable to use for prolonged periods than the D-Pad, and certainly should prove useful in any kind of 3D gaming endeavor. The only thing that I have concerns over is the same lesson Sony learned from the PSP: two analog controls are better than one. However, the kinds of games on the PSP where I frequently wished for a pair of analog controls (mainly FPS and Katamari games) aren’t the kind one sees so much on the DS. Somehow I doubt The New Super Mario Bros. 2 or Tetris XIX will be ruined by a lack of twin analog controls.

So in simple summation: 3D is a well done effect, proving that Nintendo still knows how to make economical, well thought out technology, but the peripheral technology added to the console will be what you keep using it for (much like the Wii’s Wiimote: the motion sensors are typically used more than the pointing aspect).

Johnathan Post’s Glasses-Free 3D Solution: Not exactly a solution

There’s been big buzz at CES about gasses-free 3D TVs, and Johnathan Post seems to have developed a solution to the 3D Glasses problem, while using conventional 3D Active-Shutter display technology:

Aside from being completely freaky to watch, there are some problems with this solution that doesn’t address any of the complaints about active-shutter-based 3D TVs:

  • You’re still blocking a portion of the light getting into your eyes, making the picture overall dimmer
  • You still need to wear something on your head (only now you look like Geordi LaForge without his VISOR)
  • There is still likely flickering
  • People without these devices still can’t see the picture (so you need to have enough of these devices for all your viewers)

Then there are all the new potential problems introduced with this solution:

  • Instead of charging one set of glasses, you now need to charge an independent pair of devices
  • The prototype is pretty small, which makes you question the size of the batteries (and their capacity)
  • The size of the prototype also leads to the probability of the devices being more easily lost
  • Obviously: eyelid fatigue.

Since this is just a prototype, some of these problems could be solved in the next hardware revision. For example: independent charging of the two pieces and battery size could be solved by tethering the two pieces together, much like some stereo BlueTooth headphones, but this adds weight and increases the size of the device, which could prevent it from being affixed to the skin as demonstrated here. This could be replaced with a circlet, but then you basically have glasses, except your eyes are the shutters, which still leaves the potential problem of eyelid fatigue, and doesn’t really offer much advantage over conventional active shutter glasses, unless their cost is significantly lower than most 3D glasses.

Another problem I noticed, but likely just a problem with the prototype, but the system didn’t deactivate when the demonstrator looked away from the screen. Immediately everyone I showed this video to began planning pranks based around it. I could also see other potential problems, though less intentionally. Like forgetting you’re wearing them and trying to drive with them on, potentially causing visual impairment (related to dimming the real world) or issues with reading electronic displays (like traffic signs, gas station prices, or LED-based traffic lights) because of the refresh rate of those signs isn’t quite compatible with 60+ Hz shutters (leading to incomplete looking images).

I guess the moral of this story is that while this is indeed, technically, “glasses-free,” (or, “no glasses,” as the video is labeled) it doesn’t mean it isn’t “device-free,” that it’s better than the glasses, or that it’s an optimal solution.