Just as TV makers and film studios are working hard assuring movie watchers that wearing 3D glasses isn't that bad, Nintendo just applied some extra pressure.
Out of nowhere, the game hardware maker announced Monday that it is planning on selling an updated version of its popular handheld with a 3D screen that will not require any special eyewear. This is a big deal, and means there will likely be more where this came from in the next year in the form of other devices.
We don't know exactly how the Nintendo 3DS will work. Nintendo is being tight-lipped about details for now, but has said it plans to reveal more at E3, the gaming conference to be held in Los Angeles in June.
Still, we can connect some of the dots. It appears there will be two 4-inch 3D-capable displays, and they might be using something called parallax barrier technology, according to Jennifer Coleman, director of display technology at DisplaySearch. A parallax barrier display uses one liquid-crystal display layered under another. Each has tiny stripes that will hide certain pixels so that some are only visible to your left eye, while others will only be seen by your right eye. In that way, each eye gets its own image, producing the illusion of 3D without the need for glasses.
Both Hitachi and Sharp have been using parallax barrier displays in cell phones and laptops in Japan and Korea for several years, so one of them could be the supplier for Nintendo's phone, Coleman guessed.
It's good timing. The 3D market is heating up, with 3D films raking in money at the box office, TV makers pushing the format, new 3D channels set to debut, and the first 3D digital cameras already on sale.
And while this is an important step for portable gaming, if consumers embrace the use of 3D without glasses, it means they're going to expect more from their 3D movies at the theater and TVs at home too. We do know Nintendo plans to ship the 3DS sometime in the next year. That's a long window. And even if it doesn't actually ship by next March--let's say it takes two years--it's still going to arrive smack in the middle of Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry's planned 3D revolution, which includes the wearing of glasses, at least for now.
Displays that allow your eyes to see 3D images without need for glasses to transmit the image properly to your eye are known as auto-stereoscopic displays. The goal for Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and the others is to eventually have auto-stereoscopic displays that as large as typical TVs today--32 inches and larger.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, Hollywood's leading 3D booster, has been proclaiming that 3D TVs without accompanying glasses will arrive in "a handful of years." Other industry folk are more conservative, citing the obvious concerns over cost and the displays' ability to produce a crisp 3D picture on a large screen.
For now, however, the technology is confined to smaller displays. Parallax barrier LCDs cost about $20 to $30 per display at the size the Nintendo 3DS will likely use, 4 inches. Traditional LCD screens of that size that are currently in the Nintendo DSi, cost about $10 to $20 each, according to DisplaySearch.
Adding $10 to the cost of the device isn't unreasonable, especially for new technology. And because of the growing popularity of 3D, Coleman expects Nintendo's competitors to jump on the auto-stereoscopic gaming handhelds soon too.
"Sony is very aggressive on 3D TV, Playstion 3 games," she said. "But I also expect they will move 3D to the PlayStation Portable. I would expect we'll see Sony announce something in about 12 months."