Nintendo 3DS: How it'll work

SPECIAL REPORT: 3D display and industry experts give their insight

Nintendo will release what it's currently calling the Nintendo 3DS - the true "successor" to DS with the ability to display 3D without the need for glasses - by the end of March 2011. Those are the hard facts. But what else do we know and how will it work? CVG spoke to 3D display and industry experts to find out.

There have been numerous rumours and leaks on the previously touted 'DS2', suggesting everything from GameCube-quality visuals and tilt/motion functionality to patents for a rumbling stylus. All are merely speculation.

The real meat of today's announcement is the 3D element - without glasses. The three-dimensional revolution is, it seems, just around the corner with major electronics companies releasing the first stereoscopic 3D TV sets over the next few months, and new 3D Blu-ray movies to follow shortly after. But with the benefit of these stunning TVs comes one crucial downfall - the need to wear considerably unsightly specs. So how will Nintendo achieve 3D without glasses on a handheld machine?

3D-capable displays without nerd-lenses have actually been possible for many years, and in various technical ways, too. The principle of 3D is simple: we are able to see the world around us in three-dimensions because our two eyes send a slightly different picture to our brain, thanks to the fact that they're around two inches apart. Our brain processes these two images and makes a single three-dimensional image and so you have depth perception.

The key for all 3D displays is to reproduce this alternate imagery in each eye to fool the brain into building a 3D image. Glasses allow this effect easily - 3DTVs display two separate images alternately at high speed, while synchronised glasses allow your left eye to see one image and your right eye to see another.

3DS won't do this. "Nintendo is likely to use lenticular technology," Neil Dodgson, a 3D displays expert based at Cambridge University told CVG. This, he went on to explain, doesn't need glasses at all.

"A lenticule is a long thin lens, shaped with a flat back and a curved front, like a slice taken off a cylinder." This lenticule, essentially a panel with millions of tiny pixel-sized lenses on it, is placed over an otherwise standard screen.

As Dodgson explains: "The lenticules direct the pixels' light in different directions, so each eye sees only every alternate column of pixels. The graphics chip renders two images, one for the left eye and one for the right. These two images are displayed on the two sets of alternating columns of pixels." Electronics firm Phillips, among others, have been demonstrating displays that effectively employ this system for more than two years.

For this to work, however, you need to view the screen from certain 'zones' or areas in front of the display in order for each of your eyes to see the correct image. "We make zones in the space in front of the display. We aim to set this up so that your left eye will be in one zone and your right eye in another, so each eye sees a different image," explains Dodgson.

This would seem a far more likely method of achieving true 3D than the somewhat faked alternative used in Japanese DSiWare game, 3D Hidden Picture, which uses the DSi camera to track when the console is being moved, adjusting the on-screen image accordingly. This more basic system appears to work well (see the video here) but will only offer depth, not images that appear to stand out. And what happens when you play in complete darkness and the camera can't detect movement? Surely the days of needing a constant external light source to play your handheld disappeared along with the first-gen GBA.

Lenticular tech does, however, have its own set of obstacles: "It restricts where your head can be relative to the screen," said Dodgson. "Once you have got the 3D effect you cannot move your head left/right very much because otherwise your right eye would switch to a zone where it sees the left eye's image and vice-versa. You will also need to be roughly the right distance away from the screen for this to work well: too close or too far away and the effect will break up." This distance, we understand, could be around 15 to 20 inches from your face - about right for a handheld.

This is likely the main reason why TV sets have opted for the glasses-based tech - they allow you more freedom of movement in your living room. But considering you tend to hold a handheld directly in front of you at roughly the right distance anyway means being in the 'zone', to to speak, isn't nearly as much of a problem.

Resolution is another hurdle. With each eye only able to see alternating columns of pixels on the screen, you're only seeing half the pixels at any one time, essentially reducing the resolution of the underlying display by a factor of two. "This means that, to look as good as the current Nintendo hand-held, the new display will need to have twice the resolution on the underlying screen," said Dodgson.

This, along with the need for the 3DS to render everything twice, will require a considerably beefier processor. The rumoured 'GameCube-like' power should have that covered, then.

Dodgson assures us though that lenticular technology won't break the bank; another key reason to believe that Nintendo, a company now known for its focus on keeping hardware prices low, will employ this method of 3D. "It will be cheap to make the lenticules: they can be made cheaply as a single sheet of die-cast plastic that can be pasted in front of the screen," he said.

The need for a higher-resolution screen and more powerful processor will, however, up the price of the unit.

Industry analyst Michael Pachter thinks Nintendo is likely to aim for a similar price range to the £159.99 DSi XL. "Based on charging $189 (US) for the DSi XL, my guess is that Nintendo will try to charge at least that much," Pachter told us.

"If they accomplish the effect with a thicker screen (in order to allow for layering of the image), costs will go in one direction; if they do so by alternating left/right eye images (what's done with current 3D with glasses), costs will go in another. We can't even dream about what a thicker screen with an optical illusion would cost unless we know the specs of the illusion," he added.

Speculating on how Nintendo will achieve the 3D effect, Pachter said: "For what it's worth, my guys think that layering the image on a thicker screen could accomplish the illusion (do you remember those cheap shiny cartoon images that look at you one way when tilted and another when held flat?).

"My guess is that Nintendo has figured something out that is either very cool and advanced, or is a gimmick," said Pachter.

Nintendo 3DS could, from what we've learned, be very special. Our initial impression was that it'd be destined to feature a cut-down, comparatively sub-par 3D effect next to this year's newfangled TVs, largely because of the small size of a handheld's display and Nintendo's tendency to design low-cost hardware.

But on the contrary, established technologies could provide an uncompromised stereoscopic experience cheaply enough to be feasible for a new Nintendo handheld.

We're already praying for Super Mario Galaxy 3DS.