Modern 3-D gaming has been around for a while, but it's far from mainstream. That changes with the launch of Nintendo 3DS, a portable game platform that promises stereoscopic effects without the need for those bulky, ugly glasses.
The system's naked eye 3-D effect really works. Images have a realistic sense of depth similar to what you might see in a 3-D Hollywood film. Objects appear to float above the screen or sink into it, depending on the scene and game (see our roundup of select 3DS launch titles here).
How is this possible? Without getting into too much technical detail, the top display employs two screens and what's known as a "parallax barrier" to direct a different image toward each of the player's eyes, mimicking the way we naturally perceive our world from two separate angles. The catch is that people with pre-existing eyesight conditions that lead to depth-perception deficiency may not be able to see the effect.
Interestingly, Nintendo recommends that players younger than seven years old not play games in 3-D, though no long-term medical research exists to confirm that stereoscopic images can harm children's developing vision. Indeed, some optometrists are even welcoming the device in hopes that it will help them detect correctible vision problems in younger players.
Assuming you can see the depth effect, you'll need to remain in the sweet spot -- around 30-centimetres from the screen and dead centre -- to maintain it. Move your head or tilt the device a little left or a little right and you'll be treated to a nasty ghosting effect. Nintendo is banking on this kind of 3-D working well in a handheld system because gamers generally don't stray too far from this position while playing. However, if you're on a bumpy bus or -- like me -- have a tendency to use a bit of body English and tilt the display while playing, you might have difficulty maintaining the 3-D effect.
Thankfully, the stereoscopic function can be reduced or even switched off completely by moving a slider on the right side of the top display. The change is instant; there's no need to quit the game or even pause it. And playing 3DS games in two-dimensions is still a big step up over Nintendo DS games thanks to the device's higher resolution (800-by-240 pixels) widescreen display and improved processing power, which churns out graphics nearly on par with what you might see on Nintendo's home console, the Wii.
The 3DS' stereoscopic functionality extends beyond games and into photography, thanks to a pair of 0.3 megapixel cameras spaced a few centimetres apart on the outside of the device's lid. Pictures are predictably grainy and can only be viewed on the 3DS, but they're fun to tinker with and show off to friends. Nintendo has alluded to 3-D video as well, which is likely to be implemented via a firmware update later this year. A third, inward facing camera lets users snap monoscopic pictures of themselves.
3-D effects and improved horsepower aren't the only ways in which the 3DS is distinguished from its predecessor, the Nintendo DS. Another major upgrade comes in the form of an analogue circle pad in the top left corner of the control console. The pad feels great and provides much more precise control than the d-pad directly below.
My only criticism of the circle pad is that there's just the one. Why Nintendo didn't include a second on the right side of the console, which plays host to a quartet of action buttons on top and, except for a tiny power button, is empty below, escapes me. Two pads would have made controlling first- and third-person games on the 3DS akin to controlling them with a standard console controller. Nintendo should have learned a lesson from rival Sony, which has taken heat from gamers for years for designing its PSP with just one analogue nub before wisely engineered its upcoming Next Generation Portable to feature two.