The Nintendo 3DS: How will it offer 3D graphics without glasses?

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Yesterday Nintendo announced a new handheld game console, tentatively called the Nintendo 3DS. Details on the new system have been very thin, but the big feature is that it will feature 3D graphics without requiring the user to wear glasses. Other than that, we know that it will be backwards compatible with DS and DSi games and that Nintendo is planning on shipping it in Japan by March 2011.

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Let the speculation begin! How is this thing going to do 3D? There are already a couple of games that do this kind of thing. Back in February there was a bit of a splash when a downloadable 3D 'Find the object' game was revealed for the DSi in Japan. This game used the camera on the DSi to do some rudimentary head-tracking. As you move the DSi, the image being displayed changes subtly, creating the illusion of 3D (see embedded video below). Today on Kotaku Stephen Totilo pointed out a system used on the iPhone and Android phones to achieve a similar effect using the accelerometer. Totilo suggests iPhone users download WordFu to see this in action; I can add that Android users can see it in Labyrinth Lite (there may very well be other examples). Both are free apps.

The DSi has cameras, which means the 3DS will have to have them too if it's going to be backwards compatible. We've also heard rumors that the "next DS" will have tilt-sensors better than the iPhone. With either the camera or tilt-sensors either of these 'faux 3D' systems would work. But since we've seen the DSi do this already, it doesn't seem likely that the new hardware will rely on the same old trick.

Enter our friends at Engadget, who uncovered some details from Japanese newspapers. If they're right, the Nintendo 3DS will incorporate parallax barrier LCD screens from Sharp (see also this explanation of dynamic parallax barrier screens). This is the same technology used in a few "3D Laptops." The system works (in layman's terms; I'm not an engineer) by showing a different image depending on viewing angle. A camera tracks the user to determine where his eyes are, and the angular difference required to see the two images is small enough that each eye is seeing a different image. In crude terms, think of those lenticular images you used to find in boxes of cereal. Look at them from one angle and you see Dr. Jekyll. Till the image and he becomes Mr. Hyde. Imagine if each eye could see a different facet of the image; you could do 3D that way.

There was also some talk of a 3D control stick and vibration technology. Earlier rumors mentioned the next Nintendo handheld would have a Tegra chip inside but there's been no confirmation of that coming out of Nintendo.

One last thing we do know: we'll get more details at this year's E3 in June, if not before.

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