Just how is Nintendo putting the ‘3D’ in the 3DS?

At the moment, all we know regarding the Nintendo 3DS’ screen technology is that it produces a 3D image without the use of any special stereoscopic glasses. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking technology, but it’s not commonplace either. So how are they doing it? We might not know for sure until – or shortly before – E3, but with a little snooping around we can figure out what may be likely and what’s out of the question.

What’s Likely

Parallax Barrier Technology – The leading theory at the moment is that the 3DS will use Sharp‘s parallax barrier LCD technology. Sharp is one of the primary suppliers of LCD screens for the Nintendo 3DS, so it makes sense that Nintendo would take advantage of the technology. As shown above, a barrier of “switching liquid crystal” in 2D mode allows light through in such a way that both of your eyes see the same 2D image. In 3D mode, the barrier switches to allow light through only in such a way that each of your eyes sees a different image on the TFT-LCD screen, resulting in a 3D, stereoscopic image without the need for glasses or goggles. The parallax barrier does essentially what the polarized glasses would have done for your eyes anyway.

This design does have its limitations, however. Because the “windows” of the parallax barrier are a certain width, the two images design for each eye must also be displayed in a specific pattern; that is, not dynamically. As a result, there is a sort of “sweet spot” that the screen must be viewed at in order to see the 3D image properly, so you’ll have to hold your 3DS at a certain spot at all times. Plus, it doesn’t generally work as well for multiple viewers (which isn’t much of an issue for a handheld).

Microlens Technology – The other major supplier of Nintendo’s LCD screens is Hitachi, who have also been working with 3D technology that doesn’t require polarizing glasses. Their “interactive autostereoscopic display system” uses microlens technology, which is similar to lenticular technology (the kind of technology in those toys and “blinking eye” rings that shift when you look from different angles). Rather than using a barrier that blocks light to direct specific images to each eye, this system uses lenses to bend light in order to deliver the proper image to your eyes. Plus, the microlenses that Hitachi uses are concave to allow the 3D image to be viewed properly from any angle – above, below, left, or right of normal will all look the same.

The downside is that each one of those microlenses needs to have dozens of pixels behind them in order to produce different images for each eye, meaning the entire screen needs to have a much higher resolution than you normally would at whatever size you’re dealing with. Taking a look at Hitachi’s website will show that they had previously used 5″, WXGA, 1,280×768 screens in 2006 in order to demonstrate the microlens technology.

Less Likely

Headtracking Technology – Seeing as the 3DS will be compatible with all DSi games, the system will come with a minimum of 2 cameras. If you’ve fiddled around with the DSi camera software, you know the system has basic facial recognition, allowing for possible headtracking. It makes sense that the 3DS – and even the DSi – could theoretically use this technology to approximate your eyes’ position relative to the screen and render the on-screen images based on your position.

While this can simulate a 3D image when viewing in real-time, it might take a significant amount of power for the system to render these images constantly, especially for particularly “busy” games. On top of that, the facial recognition on the DSi isn’t quite perfect, so some advancements would be needed. Finally, what happens when someone else walks into the camera’s view?

Accelerometer/Tilt Technology – Another way to simulate a 3D effect is to use tilt technology to determine the handheld’s orientation, then use this information to render the screen image in real-time as appropriate. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo demonstrates this clever programming trick as used by the iPhone app, WordFu.

As referenced in Stephen’s article, however, this is merely a visual trick based on the system’s orientation. But what about games where we’re not tilting the system in every which way? Like most of them? I keep my DS still for the most part when I’m playing, and I don’t see games adding this feature just for the novelty… and when the system doesn’t move, you’re back to a 2D image again.

Somewhat Unlikely

On-board Head Mount – Nintendo previously released a stereoscopic system that technically didn’t use glasses… But considering how well that went the first time, don’t get your hopes up on it happening again.

Holographic Technology – While screens are sort of implied by the fact that DS and DSi games will still work with the 3DS, not once in the press release are actual screens mentioned. Maybe we need to think outside the box? Literally.

Conclusion

While use of the cameras and alleged accelerometers would be able to simulate a 3D effect, it’s clear that Nintendo’s hardware partners have very simple and cost effective means of producing 3D images on a screen without requiring special glasses or goggles that are much more effective. Still, we don’t know how Nintendo plans to go 3D, or what it plans to do with it. Remember before the “Revmote” was revealed, when motion control was a leading theory? Despite knowing what to expect, no one could have predicted how well it would prove itself when incorporated into our favorite Wii games. Likewise, we know Nintendo is going 3D – and yet there’s a good chance we’ll be blown away this E3.

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About the Author: Christian Ponte

Co-Founder/Owner/Director
  • Minifig3D

    Lol, I love how a hologram is only somewhat unlikely.
    The back to the future reference is nice too. 😉

  • XFi6

    Headtracking is only 3D when you're moving your head. Since a DS game just stays in your face or on your lap, it doesn't do much.