Nintendo 3DS: The Eyes Have It

Geek Culture

I must admit, my head is spinning somewhat after the 3DS launch event. There was a lot to take in, and a lot of angles to consider. Was it a good device for casual gamers, or hardcore gamers? How did it stack up for families? Was the hardware all it promised to be? How accessible was the 3D screen?

With a March 27 release date and price of $250 putting the 3DS on everybody’s lips, I thought I’d put together a more personal account of what it’s like to play:

Nintendo 3DSNintendo 3DS

Nintendo 3DS

The first time you play a 3DS game is an odd experience. The screen in unlike anything your eyes encounter on a day to day basis. At first there’s a battle between binocular vision and technology as your senses strain to make sense of what is in front of you.

Like the children’s eye test where you are tasked with putting the Lion in the Cage, or the more recent experience of straining to see 3D Stereogram dot pictures, you consciously have to get your eye muscles to focus. Slowly the two images being fed to them by the 3DS coalesce and you are granted another dimension.

I never really managed to see elusive 3D tigers, windmills and flowers hidden in ’90s Stereogram pictures, and I was worried that my eyes wouldn’t be up to the task of this new magical 3D experience. But with a little persuasion, and remembering to relax my vision, things came into focus.

Nintendo 3DS BoxNintendo 3DS Box

Nintendo 3DS Box

Initially you see a double image, but looking at this for a short while is enough for it to be magically combined into one 3D scene. This focusing process took a couple of seconds for me at first and each time I looked up from playing I had to refocus before I could resume.

This was aided by reducing the 3D slider. The affect of this was not what I expected. It doesn’t control the depth or power of the 3D effect, but rather fine tunes the different images being fed to each eye. This is more about matching how your eyes process the world (and the physical gap between them on your head), than adjusting how much 3D you could cope with. I found a sweet spot about halfway down the slider for my eyes, this not only made the experience feel less of a strain, but reduced the time it took to focus on the output.

This certainly underlined the advice given by Nintendo, that children with developing vision (which is not a fixed age but generally taken to be those six and under) should avoid using the device in 3D mode. In fact the Health and Safety warning is positively scary, “The use of the 3D feature by children under six may cause vision damage.”

Nintendo 3DS SliderNintendo 3DS Slider

Nintendo 3DS Slider

Parents have a choice for these vulnerable players — who will doubtless be clamoring to play the new device – of either using the slider to turn the 3D off or setting a Parental control that locks the feature away. This is all commendable stuff from Nintendo, although I would have preferred the default option to be off. The majority will no doubt use it responsibly but busy parents may well not realize the implications for their young children’s eyesight. And it’s not like a 3DTV that is always in a shared family space, this device will often be out of sight of parental eyes making it hard to identify how long it is used in a day and whether the slider is in the appropriate position.

Along with the trickiness for the eyes, I hadn’t realized that this no-glasses 3D means you also need to hold the device at a fixed angle. This isn’t a big problem, although it does mean you look a bit sillier, holding the 3DS up in front of you, in public. The bigger issue is that you can’t use the 3D effect to look round corners. As soon as you move your head your eyes fall into a different shuttered image and the illusion is broken. It’s a shame as this limits some gameplay mechanics – peering round corners and the like. But, as I’ll get to in a bit, this is compensated for with a clever use of the external 3D cameras to create an explorable 3D (augmented reality) game space.

But although my eyes may have protested, my brain was very happy with the 3DS experience. The 3D affect doesn’t just add depth to the image, but introduces a series of layers. These create the sense of three dimensions, but also enable games to present interactions in new ways. For instance, a head up display in Zelda Ocarina of Time becomes integral to the game world while at the same time floating some way in front of the action. The amount of screen real estate is multiplied by the number of layers the games introduce – which can be anything up to four or five.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the 3D experience for me was how flat other games looked in comparison. I had half thought that I would turn 3D off once the novelty wore off on a particular game, but quite the reverse has been true in my initial time with the device. Not only is 3D an integral part of the experience, but once tasted (like experiencing motion controls on a Wii) it’s something that I can’t imagine playing games without.

The Nintendo 3DS is available to preorder from Amazon for $249.99.

[All images by Andy Robertson.]

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