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3-D gaming without glasses? Nintendo 3DS faces technological hurdles

March 25, 2010 |  4:51 pm

Days before Nintendo is set to release the DSi XL console, the company flashed some bits of info about a new hand-held game device it plans to show off at the Los Angeles E3 expo in June. Tentatively titled the Nintendo 3DS, the device plays three-dimensional games without users needing to wear special glasses.

The Japanese company was mum on details. But the system will succeed the Nintendo DS series and offer backwards compatibility, meaning it will play the old games, according to a statement. To do so, we could assume the Nintendo 3DS will have some of its predecessor's key pieces of hardware -- two screens, at least one of which is touch-sensitive, and a microphone.

Nintendo plans to release the product in the next 12 months, the company said in the news release. A spokesman declined to comment further, but multitude of questions need to be addressed before then.

With 3-D technology still very much in its infancy, especially one that doesn't require glasses, Nintendo will have to pull off some magic. Some exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show in January were showing off picture-frame-sized video screens that can project 3-D images without needing glasses. They weren't impressive.

Inherent in glasses-free 3-D is a predetermined viewing area. A filter on the screen redirects light to give the impression of an image popping out at the viewer, explained Tom Zerega, chief executive of the no-glasses 3-D technology company Magnetic 3D.

Because the gadget is designed for personal use, Nintendo has the luxury of planning for just a single user, rather than having to accommodate several vantage points. However, current glasses-free technology restrains the user from moving outside a small viewing zone.

"You might have to play in the same stance the whole time, which could get tiring," Zerega said on the phone Wednesday. "Some people might want to hold it further away. Is this going to change the way gamers have to engage with the device?"

Another question Nintendo will have to address is price. Three-dimensional implementations are expensive and require serious computing power, Zerega said. But Nintendo could eat some of the production costs and put out an affordable system while making up for it with royalties from game sales.

Video game makers could quickly embrace 3-D by re-releasing old games with eye-popping extras the way the movie industry is rumored to do with 3-D implementations sweeping theaters.

James Cameron, Hollywood's Moses of 3-D thanks to his hit "Avatar," gushes about the potential for 3-D gaming. "I just can't imagine anybody who's a serious gamer not wanting to get into the world of their game in a much more immersive way," he said in a TV interview in December.

The visionary sort of foretold a 3-D hand-held gaming device. "I think it's quickly going to get adopted down to smaller devices," Cameron said. "Pretty soon, it's going to be just everything."

With one of the first truly mainstream game systems in the Nintendo Entertainment System and a drastically rethought interface with the motion-controlled Wii, if any company could do it, Nintendo is probably it.

"Nintendo has always been a leader, and they're not afraid to put themselves out there," Zerega said. "Here they go again, throwing care to the wind, saying we're going to make this work."

-- Mark Milian

Photo: A woman tries out Nintendo Co.'s DSi XL hand-held game console. Credit: Kiyoshi Ota / Bloomberg