Nintendo Plays With Video And AR Power

I finally got my hands on Nintendo's 3DS last week, and it leaves me in pretty much the same place I have been regarding this fascinating company. It is forever dancing around the edges of the mainstream media and marketing ecosystem as it evolves in mobile and even in gaming. It innovates bravely in ways that would make other companies blanche (think touchscreen gaming on the DS, and motion controllers on low-res consoles in the Wii).  It has been counted out and outmoded too many times to count in the past few decades. And yet even when it hits home runs in gaming technology, it keeps to itself.

While Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation aspired to be home media centers, Nintendo's Wii barely playedin  the game of streaming media other than in its own. The arrival of a video channel on the Wii and eventually on Netflix saw it dabbling only with media partnerships. The notion of putting marketing messages other than its own into the gaming media stream on the Wii or the DS platforms just didn't seem to interest Nintendo.



With the 3DS, things open up just a tad more. Consigned by principle and biology to remain monocular and strictly 2D in my media consumption, I have to leave it to others to comment on the no-glasses 3D effect the 3DS brings to the table. I will say that, as a hunk of gaming hardware, the new handheld from Nintendo is as frustrating as it is fascinating. The battery performance is just awful compared to previous units, and the $250 price is very hard to justify. But being able to play the magnificent classic "Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time"  on a handheld is a great treat.

The most interesting thing about the 3DS is its much enhanced mobile store and video capabilities. First, we get Netflix, which brings the 3DS into the same playing field as the iPhone and select Androids. The Nintendo version makes interesting use of the two-screen real estate. You can tap across the library's familiar categories ("Recently Watched," "New Arrivals," etc.) in the bottom touch screen, and the top wider screen pops up video details. While the film plays in the top screen, you can navigate in the bottom display. Netflix retains its great scene scrubber fast forward convention in this version.

Video on the 3DS suffers a few problems, however. The resolution is far from peerless, certainly compared to the Retina Display on the iPhone 4. In many respects it seems fuzzy. Also, none of the DS series I have used ever had strong WiFi performance and this is no exception. Even sitting on top of a router the video cover art from Netflix was amazingly sluggish. The stream itself ran fine, but in basic navigation and responsiveness, most Internet content delivery was not as snappy as one would expect from most modern smartphones.

But, in addition to the Netflix partnership, Nintendo is nudging its way into the general video ecosystem via an alliance with CollegeHumor, which is supplying some videos for a Nintendo Video channel that downloads clips regularly to the device. To its credit Nintendo has much improved its own game merchandising. The eStore now includes multiple full screen images from upcoming games and streaming trailers.

The most noteworthy piece of the new 3DS system for mobilistas may be the augmented reality experiments. The 3DS comes with a short stack of AR cards with various exercises in interacting with characters and game play. In many cases the player has to rotate around a foe to hit targets in virtual space, adding a new dimension to mobile game play. I can only imagine how AR might be deployed as a tool in virtualized battle among physical players near one another. The experience of seeing a dragon pop up from your desktop is exciting. Even better are the ways in which some of these AR experiments actually take the photographed scene and morph it. When your desktop turns to rubber and starts bounding like a trampoline, then you know technology is approaching that holy grail of ex-hippies - tripping without drugs.

But Nintendo has always had a handle on hallucinatory experiences. Pretty much any good Mario platform game feels laced with Windowpane. While a bit of a half-miss in terms of price, longevity and overall technical prowess, the 3DS gives Nintendo's usual teasing glimpse of the next stage.

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