Glasses-Free 3-D: Nintendo Just Might Implement It Successfully
Back in early April, within my cover story on 3-D television display technologies, I wrote:
Taking a no-glasses tack at solving the problem, a number of manufacturers have developed autostereoscopic displays. These displays incorporate lenticular lenses, parallax barriers, or other mechanisms to create depth perception from a flat projection surface. To succeed to a reasonable degree, however, autostereoscopy requires that the viewer be rigidly positioned in a “sweet spot” throughout the presentation. Even under ideal circumstances, autostereoscopy doesn’t create a compelling end result. I’ve auditioned many autostereoscopic displays over the years, and I’ve never walked away even remotely impressed. Fortunately, users can switch autostereoscopic displays into 2-D mode to view conventional content. Like with other specialty-display types, such as large-screen OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes), it’s nonetheless difficult to envision that autostereoscopy can achieve sufficient early-adopter sales to appreciably reduce costs and prices for the masses.
Note, however, that at the time I was speaking only of large-screen opportunities. To wit, and specifically to my earlier ‘autostereoscopy requires that the viewer be rigidly positioned in a “sweet spot” throughout the presentation’ comment, in a late-April follow-on blog post I posited:
What about autostereoscopic OLED (or for that matter, LED-backlit LCD) small-sized screens? They may have found their ‘killer app’ in the form of Nintendo’s next-generation DS portable gaming system, the 3DS, whose existence was curiously revealed prior to mid-June’s E3 Expo. I agree with some other analyses that the premature unveiling was intended to counter Apple’s growing handheld gaming momentum on the iPhone, iPod touch and (now) the iPad.
Just as movie theaters are migrating to 3-D in attempting to differentiate themselves from the looming home theater competitive threat, dedicated gaming consoles need something compelling to distinguish themselves from gaming-augmented general-purpose platforms such as portable multimedia players and smartphones. A native 3-D display may be just the ticket, and as such I suspect that the Nintendo 3DS will use an autostereoscopic approach such as a lenticular lens, parallax barrier or overlay film technology (although the pop-up puppet implementation also sounds intriguing).
Granted, early stabs at this market in the form of autostereoscopic accessories for the iPhone/iPod touch and Sony PlayStation Portable are underwhelming. But an implementation designed for autostereoscopic 3-D from the very beginning will probably be far more compelling, and this particular application doesn’t require wide viewing angles, multiple-viewer support or any of the other capabilities that hinder autostereoscopy in the living room. Once a high-volume platform such as the Nintendo 3DS gets small-form-factor autostereoscopic displays’ production ramped up and costs ramped down, plenty of other applications will also emerge.
Indeed, Nintendo formally rolled out the Nintendo 3DS in mid-June at E3. Initial feedback from on-site press was generally positive, although the 3-D effect’s impressiveness varied from one demo title to another, as well as from one reviewer to another. To some degree, this latter variability was likely the result of a specific reviewer’s eye-to-eye spacing, along with eye-to-console spacing and the amenability of the reviewer’s brain to being ‘fooled’ by the 3-D illusion.
To user-customize the autostereoscopic presentation, Nintendo provides a side-mounted slider that tweaks the 3-D effect along with optionally disabling it. As such, although the company remains mum on the exact autostereoscopic technology planned for the 3DS, I suspect that an adjustable parallax barrier ’slit’ technology is being employed. And, if I had to guess on a display supplier, I’d choose Sharp, who rolled out a new touchscreen commensurate with Nintendo’s early-April handheld console information leak and subsequently revealed cameras, mobile phones and other systems employing it. Nintendo and Sharp have a longstanding, albeit sometimes rocky, relationship…then again, Hitachi also is a long-time Nintendo partner, so perhaps Nintendo will go down a dual-supplier path.
Befitting the notable additional processing ‘muscle’ required to deal with 3-D content at reasonable frame rates versus its 2-D predecessor, the rumored 3DS specifications include dual 266 MHz ARM processors (purportedly from Marvell). The graphics core, we already know, comes from a previously little-known developer called Digital Media Professionals, beating out better-known competitors in the process. So will the 3DS be a slam-dunk success, both beating back challengers from Apple, Sony and elsewhere, and tempting existing DS and DSi owners to upgrade? I’m not so sure.
Although Nintendo’s long-duration prominence in the gaming space cannot be underestimated, it hasn’t been a perfect track record. Ironically, a previous stereoscopic console system known as the Virtual Boy represents one of Nintendo’s more prominent stumbles. Perhaps obviously, compelling content will be key to 3DS success, not only from Nintendo but also (I believe, although other analysts beg to differ) from third-party partners. I’m also concerned that Nintendo is missing the all-important Christmas holiday shopping season, with the 3DS not scheduled to be available in Japan until late February 2011 and in the U.S. and Europe one month later.
The 3DS will sell in Japan for 25,000 yen, roughly $300 USD in today’s exchange rate. That compares with 18,000 yen (approximately $215) for the DSi XL in Japan at the moment; pricing for other geographies has not yet been announced. A ~$100 (or said another way, 50%) mark-up for 3-D capabilities might be a hard sell for Nintendo if the lingering worldwide economic malaise remains in force next spring…particularly if the 3DS delivers notably poorer between-charges battery life than its predecessors.