Is this the Nintendo Switch VR solution?
This article has been edited to reflect the name change of Nintendo's console from NX to Switch.
Images of what appear to be a confidential prototype of the Nintendo Switch controller have appeared across the web (including some fake ones yesterday). The images spawn more questions than answers, with people pondering how the device works with no tactile buttons to be seen. How about we all look at the device a little differently? How about literally - let's put the device right up to our faces.
Even die-hard Nintendo fans like myself have to admit that Nintendo is on the back foot right now. The Nintendo Wii U has been far from successful for the Japanese games manufacturer and Sony and Microsoft appear to have this generation tied up with their more powerful machines. More Sony than Microsoft, it has to be said.
Now with Sony's PlayStation VR announced at what is being perceived as an attractive price point for most and due to be released before the end of the year, it could be said that Nintendo is two steps back. Not only do they have to release hardware that can deliver the goods in the living room, but they have a further disadvantage as 35 million PlayStation owners consider dipping their toes into Virtual Reality, which would leave most of them out of pocket by the time Nintendo releases a new system.
For Nintendo to catch up, they need a system that can attract back the mainstream audience they once captured with the Wii, while simultaneously making those thinking of adopting VR early think twice. What if Nintendo can deliver both at once? An exciting new games system, with VR available in the same box. I think it can be done and it needn't break the bank either.
Where Sony are asking $399 for their new headset alone, for Nintendo to ask for new players to double-dip on a new console and headset would be asking too much. However, there are alternative methods to deliver VR games into eyeballs at a far lower price. Oculus's GearVR for Samsung phones and Google's Cardboard for everything else offer VR solutions for less than $100. In fact, I recently purchased a very cheap solution that works well with my iPhone.
By displaying two images on your phone screen, with a lens for each eye within the headset to interpret the images appropriately, these mobile solutions draw on the existing power of your handset to deliver a solid VR experience. These headsets contain no technology of their own, but rely on the hardware you already possess, which is how they remain so affordable. With modern mobile phones having extremely high resolution displays, some headsets are capable of delivering a perceived 100° image surrounding the viewer. The same as the PlayStation VR.
While it's clear Nintendo's new controller is designed to be held in the hands, with two analogue sticks and what looks like a touch screen to complete the interactions - the device is ideally sized and shaped to slot into a VR headset. There would be plenty of clearance room between the screen and a player's face for those sticks to not be a problem and they would likely slot snugly into the device.
So, why didn't PlayStation go this route? It's a fair question. In fact, the Vita would have been capable in terms of acting as the display, in theory, and would have given the dying hardware a new lease of life. However, Sony have been looking at the competition. They realise that immersion is more than what you see, but how you interact. One of the reasons that the PlayStation VR requires the PlayStation Camera is because the console needs a reference point for where you are in the room, as well as a way to see the two PlayStation Move controllers that track where each hand is. Add to this the complex head movement tracking and extra computational power required to pump out the game image twice over. Something the PS4 is not capable of doing on its own, hence the extra processor bundled with the PlayStation VR.
With the Switch, Nintendo have the opportunity to release more modern, faster and efficient processing out of the gate, so that pushing those extra polygons around will be no issue. Hardware capable of outputting 1080p gaming (and beyond) at a higher fidelity than the PS4 is no longer expensive to produce. Using NFC technology similar to that of the Wii U, they can duplicate these images to the handheld device without any performance cost. Accelerometers in the device (again, much like the Wii U, or mobile phones) will take the brunt of the head movement. Over 100 million people already have a pair of Wii Remotes, to handle the hand movement and interaction.
For me, it feels that Nintendo are actually incredibly well positioned to put out a games package of incredible value, right on the cutting edge of technology. Their track record of putting out quality, innovate software is already well proven. For me, I truly hope they deliver the goods. Nintendo consoles are like Star Trek movies, every other one is a flop, but the ones in-between are hits. It could be an interesting holiday season should we hear more from the big N this summer.