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Through the Looking Glass: How The 3DS Can Transform Gaming In The Outside World

In this post I give my thoughts on the 3DS after having it in my hands for a week and how it could change mobile gaming as we know it.

Christopher Totten, Blogger

April 6, 2011

8 Min Read

Sometimes when writing these posts, I like to begin with a mildly shocking and/or thought provoking statement, presented bluntly on a line of its own, then use the post as a whole to explain the deeper meaning of the statement.  I’m going to do this today…here goes:

3D is the least impressive thing that the Nintendo 3DS does. 

AH HA!  There!  Did I blow your mind?  No?  Sigh...I tried...


I’m not the first to make this statement, it’s something that has been said by the likes of CNN's Scott Steinberg.  In his article, Steinberg refers to the 3DS’s upcoming multimedia features, specifically Netflix capability and internet capability, and says that the 3D on the 3DS is simply a “Trojan Horse” to get the device into the hands of consumers.  I couldn’t agree more, but today I’ll discuss how this “Trojan Horse” mentality relates more closely to the actual world of games.

trojan rabbitWatch as Nintendo delivers another AR system to an unsuspecting household (Yes, I'm back to using Monty Python pictures)

The idea of “gamification” has been a hotly debated topic among the gaming industry.  Gamification refers to software applications that give people game-like rewards for performing everyday activities.  This could extend to everything from personal devices to ATM machines, instilling “good behaviors” by giving users digital incentives.

Games that give rewards for exercise, such as Wii Fit, could be seen as an example of this kind of real-life reward system.  This form of gamification is controversial because many experts disagree that real life should require a reward system. 

Gamification has also been called a “fad” and a “buzzword” by critics who believe that it is just another method of advertising.  The 3DS’s power comes not from its 3D screen, but in its ability to gamify the real world, albeit in a much more interesting way than by offering reward systems.

The 3DS, with its (albeit low resolution) stereoscopic camera, supports Augmented Reality gameplay.  Augmented Reality is a method of displaying digital content over images of the real world, giving the user real-time information. 

The most basic type of this display is the line of scrimmage and first down line on the field when watching football games on television.  Devices that support this kind of technology create an experience not unlike peeking through the Looking Glass of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland stories. 

The University of South Australia’s Wearable Computer Lab created an AR version of Quake that reads the player’s physical surroundings using 3D cameras and GPS technology and projects Quake enemies and game objects into a pair of glasses worn by the player.  While the application is certainly innovative, the rig used to create the effect is cumbersome. 

Projects like this paved the way for the 3DS 

            The 3DS offers Augmented Reality in a device that can be carried in someone’s pocket.  The packed-in game Face Raiders allows players to turn their surroundings into a Space Invaders-esque shoot-em-up environment, where alienized faces of their friends and co-workers descend from outer space and rip holes in the camera image as though they were destroying reality itself, leaving only outer space behind it.

AR Games uses the 3DS’s clever packed-in cards to transform the user’s table, desk, wall, or whatever surface the card image finds itself on into any number of game environments, such as a shooting range, jungle, mountain range, or a fishing pond.  Targets, pools of lava, and dragons pop out of these everyday objects as though they actually exist and require the 3DS’s screen to see them. 

One of the best parts of these AR applications is that the games require that players utilize other socialization-friendly tools on the system to take full advantage of them.  AR Games has additional unlockable games that must be purchased with coins the player earns by walking outside with the 3DS’s pedometer features activated.  Face Raiders will only let players gain access to additional levels once they have taken pictures of others with the system’s cameras. 

The unfortunate aspect of this technology in the 3DS is that it is not the feature that is being most advertised by Nintendo.  Ads for the 3DS tout the system’s glasses-free stereoscopic 3D, citing the system’s inward-moving 3D (as opposed to traditional glasses-using 3D that has objects popping out at the viewer from the screen) by using the tagline “take a look inside.” 

Only those paying close attention to game industry news sites would know about the AR features of the 3DS before they pick the system up, causing some to think that the 3DS is simply a Nintendo DS with better graphics and a gimmicky screen that may or may not enhance actual gameplay.

It is also these gamers that complain about the launch lineup’s lack of “killer apps”, e-shop, and Internet browser.  Would Nintendo be better off advertising the AR features more prominently or even renaming the system to better highlight its AR potential? 

I say no.

With a bevy of 3D television sets and cameras entering the market, 3D movies invading multiplexes, and Sony advertising the 3D capabilities of its Playstation 3/tv/glasses combinations, “3D” has become an entertainment industry buzzword of its own.  Nintendo’s new handheld uses 3D cameras and screens to create better AR applications, but it has to find its way into homes to show off these AR apps. 

3D is in the current popular consciousness, and Augmented Reality currently escapes most consumers when it is explained to them.  Demonstration is the best tool for introducing the new technology, and while this may be done with thorough ads and videos, it is best to explore Nintendo’s apps yourself.

This is why Nintendo certainly makes no secret of the AR Games application.  When new 3DS owners unbox their system, they find a pack of clearly labeled AR Cards and directions on how to use them.  Likewise, the system gives step-by-step instructions in the app itself on their use.  Nintendo knows that AR is something that should be experienced first-hand and allowed to make its way into the market before they go all out advertising its use. 

buzzword bingo

This may also have ramifications in the choosing of Nintendo’s launch line-up for the system.  Many of the games that gamers are looking forward to are not coming out until later this year.  While this may simply be a product of long development times or Nintendo’s infamous perfectionism, it offers users a period of at least one and a half to two months before more passive entertainment experiences such as Netflix and web-browsing are introduced to the system. 

As stated previously, many of the AR applications require the user to use the socialization-friendly aspects of the system such as face recognition and the pedometer.  The system also utilizes a feature called Street Pass to communicate with other 3DS users’ systems as the owner walks by with the system in sleep mode.

Far from being a traditional mobile gaming machine, a smaller device that plays traditional video games, this is a game machine that DARES the player to go outside and interact with others.  Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo opines that “You’ll never forget your first 3DS Street Pass notification”, while in Washington, D.C. a social group has emerged on Facebook for meeting up to use the very same feature in various games that support it like Super Street Fighter IV and Nintendogs + Cats

As it stands, the best “gamer game” on the system is the aforementioned Street Fighter title, but even that is essentially a remake of a remade game from 2008.  Had the system launched with Kid Icarus or Ocarina of Time, however, players may be spending their time with the system on the couch rather than taking advantage of its AR features.

This is especially somewhat ironic for Ocarina, which had in it an item called the “Lens of Truth”, that was a magnifying glass that Link held up to see hidden objects.  The camera and screen of the 3DS itself pretty much does the same thing. 

I will actually be SHOCKED if a feature alluding to this item is not part of the 3DS remake of Ocarina.  How cool would it be to explore your real-world surroundings as though they were secretly being invaded by creatures from the magical land of Hyrule that could only be seen through your 3DS. 

Link Shop Link is also waiting for his copy of Ocarina of Time

With its AR features and 3D screen, the 3DS not only has an interesting gimmick, it transforms the idea of a “mobile gaming device” into one that turns your real world into a playground where items from your imagination wander freely. 

While other mobile apps such as the public digital art project, Layar, have explored these possibilities, the 3DS is putting them into the hands of the everyday consumer rather than simply the tech-savvy digital artist.  Now everyone can have a magic looking glass through which to see the world around them, opening new possibilities for play.

Taking the “?” Card idea to the next level, couldn’t Nintendo or another game company create a series of ads or public art pieces that by viewing them through the 3DS, become clues to a huge scavenger hunt or alternate reality game where digital creatures live?  The possibilities are endless.  And for those looking for a more traditional gaming experience with the system, they will be coming within the year.  Until then, it’s Spring:  switch on Street Pass or Face Raiders and go discover something new outside.  

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