ARTICLE BY COLIN MCMAHON

Colin McMahon is an Analyst with Greenlight Insights covering emerging technology trends at the intersection of VR, AR, and the gaming industry. Follow him: @ColinPMcMahon.

At first glance, Nintendo is not a part of the VR and AR market. The company’s latest console, the Nintendo Switch, currently has no compatibility with a VR headset (and no announced plans for one). So far, Nintendo’s biggest public proclamation on VR came in 2015 during E3 when Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime said, “Based on what I’ve seen to date, it’s not fun, and it’s not social… it’s just tech.” There is, however, considerable reason to believe that the thinking at Nintendo has changed since 2015. The Nintendo Switch is a lot more VR-friendly than it first appears.

The Nintendo Switch is the first ever console/portable hybrid. Essentially, it is a dedicated gaming tablet that allows for two controllers (joy-cons) to be slid into holders on its sides. These two joy-cons can be plugged into a dock to more resemble a traditional controller, or one can be held in each hand. They can also be handed off - allowing two players to share a game with one joy-con each.

joycon_controller_map

While the joy-cons do not look like anything spectacular, they are packing powerful haptic feedback software. The joy-cons feature HD Rumble, a feature accomplished through Nintendo's partnership with Immersion Corporation. Immersion is no stranger when it comes to haptics.

The San Jose-based company has been a presence in touch feedback since 1993. Immersion tech works with smartphones, PCs,  automotive touchscreens and touchpads, medical training equipment, game consoles, and other types of consumer electronics. The company has been very aggressive when it comes to patenting its technology, boasting over 2,000 issued or pending patents.

With the Switch's joy-cons, Immersion has pushed haptic feedback further. Users with Oculus Touch and Vive controllers can feel when they're grabbing an object or pulling the trigger of a weapon through rumble technology. The joy-con provides an even greater range of haptic feeling. Users holding a joy-con can feel a glass of water filling or if ice cubes are added. One of the Switch's launch titles, 1-2 Switch, features a game where players try to accurately guess the amount of balls rattling around inside their Switch joy-con.

Immersion and Nintendo have also announced that the Switch will work with TouchSense Force - a toolkit that is available with Unity or as an API. TouchSense is designed to help the user save time when developing for haptic feedback. The same technology is also being used to help create experiences on the Oculus Touch.

As impressive as the joy-con is, it is not a clear advancement. It does not provide finger tracking in the way that the Oculus Touch does. Its haptic feedback level, however, is perhaps the best on the market: superior to any dedicated VR controller available. Each joy-con also features an an accelerometer and gyroscope. These allow for motion tracking without the need of an external sensor.

All this ties back into speculation for Nintendo's plans for VR. The joy-con can be seen as a significant first step. All the company needs to do now is develop a headset and it will immediately surpass rival Sony (a company with a great headset but outdated motion controller). In a recent interview, Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima said "If we are able to resolve the issues with playing [VR] comfortably for long hours, we will support it in one form or another."

This might not even mean creating a full headset, as the Switch's size and portability would make a Samsung Gear VR-style headset possible. Nintendo is poised to make an immediate splash, should it decide to enter the VR space. Right now, the company currently describes itself in the R&D phase.

The Switch has turned Nintendo into a potential VR player and the joy-con has provided a look forward into what haptic feedback technology can accomplish.