ARTICLE BY COLIN MCMAHON
Nintendo is not your typical consumer electronics and gaming company. The Kyoto, Japan-based company has had a constant stream of new device innovations and methods of gameplay - opting to experiment and buck the trend rather than stay the course. Its efforts have either paid off in great success (Wii, DS) or met with financial setback (Wii U). Given that VR and AR represent exciting new mediums for entertainment, industry observers should consider Nintendo's long history each technology. This past and Nintendo's approach to game design provides insight into the company's future plans, some of which may be unveiled during the 2017 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles next week.
The Virtual Boy was one of the first mass-produced virtual reality consumer devices
Nintendo's only semi-direct experience with VR resulted in complete failure. Released in 1995, the Virtual Boy lasted on retail shelves for a period of eight months before production was discontinued. The system was difficult to use, had no strong gaming content, had no social element (a linkup cable was planned but never released) and worst caused headaches in its users.
To be fair, the Virtual Boy was a very primitive VR system. While it could display stereoscopic 3D graphics using the illusion of parallax technology, the images were in fact 2D. It also could only support monochromatic coloring, which meant that every user only saw shades of red and black. This was done to save costs and fix what Nintendo called "jumpy" images in the display. Unlike every modern VR headset, which uses a strap, the Virtual Boy came with a stand to be perched on top of. This met that it was impossible to really travel with the system, as players needed to find/make a comfortable location.
The Virtual Boy has gone down in history as one of the greatest failures in the video game console industry. Its creation represented Nintendo's desire to innovate, but the company's ambition far exceeded its grasp. Given how much infamy still resides around the Virtual Boy in gaming circles, Nintendo would want to be absolutely sure of the tech before trying again. Do not expect a Virtual Boy II before other dedicated console VR systems have established themselves.
What is possible is a VR add-on for Nintendo's newest console, the Switch. Nintendo's newest system is small enough to support a headset rig similar to current setups for mobile phones. The Switch's joycons contain advanced haptic technology that would enable them to serve as competent VR controllers. This supplement would allow Nintendo to support VR without making a serious hardware commitment.
The Nintendo 3DS includes AR Cards
Nintendo's portable system, the 3DS, supports augmented reality in several ways. The most direct of these has been AR Games, which comes pre-installed on every 3DS. AR Games requires AR Cards (also included) to play. The six cards are placed on flat surfaces. When players face the outward-facing 3DS camera at the cards, little games augment on top of the material cards. The 3DS also included Face Raiders, which would take pictures from the 3DS' photo library and transform them into enemies flying around a real environment.
However, despite a few game titles, Nintendo does not seem too focused on expanding the system's AR abilities. The 3DS has been available since 2011. If the company wished to further develop AR for this platform, it has had time to do so. Moreover, its newest console, the Switch, does not have an outward facing camera, further indicating the company's low commitment to creating more AR content for its platforms.
E3 may unviel a peek at Nintendo's VR/AR future
Where Nintendo is most likely to make a statement regarding AR/VR is in its recent third-party mobile AR app development. Through a partnership with Ninantic, Nintendo made a major splash with Pokémon Go in 2016. Given the game's initial success, it would not be surprising to see Nintendo make a mobile AR-related announcement at E3. If this happens, the most likely scenarios are a Pokémon Go sequel/significant DLC (such as player battles/trading) or AR content involving another popular Nintendo franchise. The Legend of Zelda may be a good fit for exploration-based AR content.
Predicting the future is tricky business, made more so by companies like Nintendo, which frequently surprises and rarely follows expectations. Thus, it will be interesting, to say the least, to watch Nintendo's E3 press conference on Tuesday, June 13 at 9 AM PDT (12 PM EDT).