Are Nintendo a software update away from the Virtual Boy Mk2?

The Nintendo Switch has only been out for a few weeks, but we're already wondering what's next from Nintendo. Officially, at least, the Switch is devoid of virtual reality capabilities, but, as we find out, that may not be the case forever

For the first major video games company to release a virtual reality headset, Nintendo sure has been reluctant to join the VR bandwagon now the technology has returned.

Back in 1995, the company released Virtual Boy, the headset that the company’s marketing materials promised would transport the wearer to a new dimension, but in reality provided headache-inducing stereoscopic 3D in a rather hellish combination of red and black.

Yet despite being a critical and commercial failure, the product ensured that Nintendo’s name was firmly tied to virtual reality. So when VR returned as a viable option a few years ago, many were keen to know if the Virtual Boy would be making a comeback.

Sadly, Nintendo had other ideas. The company made little acknowledgement of the rising interest in VR and, when it did speak of the technology, largely expressed scepticism, such as in a talk by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto during a 2015 investor meeting.

“Many demonstrations for virtual reality devices have been conducted at recent trade shows, and at this year’s E3, I noticed a number of dream-like demonstrations for which the schedule and format for commercialisation are unknown,” the Nintendo legend said.

However, now the Nintendo Switch is a reality, that scepticism appears to be changing.

Nintendo hints at VR planning

In mid-2016 Miyamoto made several comments on Twitter that caused excitement among VR-curious Nintendo fans.

“I heard VR was a hot topic at #E3, so I went to check it out. It was on display, but it wasn’t what I expected,” he wrote in Japanese, with a translation by user Cheesemeister3k. “We’re also researching VR, so we have the core technology.”

This was a big deal. For the first time a senior member in Nintendo was confirming the company was seriously researching virtual reality, suggesting that the company was interested in jumping on the VR bandwagon.

However, Nintendo has never been a company that does things just because everyone else in the industry is doing them. It’s an approach that has at times proved immensely frustrating for fans, but has endured due to the company remaining utterly distinct at a time when triple-A games have sometimes looked highly homogenised.

And it seems that its approach to VR is no different. Miyamoto’s focus appeared to be on making VR work for the Nintendo way of doing things, and he did express some concerns about how this would work.

“Long play sessions are an issue. We want to release something that can be played for long periods, carries value, and is affordable. We want parents to feel at ease.”

This mentality was further confirmed by Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima, who in February 2017 told The Nikkei that the company was “studying” VR.

“If we are able to resolve the issues with playing [VR] comfortably for long hours, we will support it in one form or another,” he said.

Nintendo experiments with head-mounted displays

In December 2016, a few short weeks before Nintendo hosted a Direct where it laid out details of its new console, a host of patents related to the Switch were published.

For the most part, the slew of diagrams and supporting text confirmed what most were expecting: Nintendo’s new console was a portable-console hybrid, transitioning between multiple configurations to allow numerous styles of play. But in amongst the careful explanations of the many controller configurations and attachments was something unexpected: a head-mounted display with an unmistakable similarity to the various smartphone-enabled virtual reality devices currently on the market.

Clearly Nintendo had done a bit more than just research VR

Clearly Nintendo had done a bit more than just research VR: the company had given serious thought to how the Switch might be made to work as an HMD. And by the looks of things, it would simply be a matter of sliding the main device into a supporting headset.

“Fig. 60 is a diagram showing an example HMD accessory to which the main unit can be attached. An HMD accessory shown in Fig. 60 includes a housing and belts. One end of the belt is attached to one end of the housing, and one end of the belt is attached to the other end of the housing,” the accompanying text said, in suitably dry patent language.

“Although not shown in the figure, the other end of the belt can be removably connected to the other end of the belt. Thus, the housing can be mounted on the head of the user by connecting together the two belts around the head of the user. Note that there is no particular limitation on the mechanism for allowing the HMD accessory to be mounted on the head of the user.”

Consider the Switch’s controllers for a second

In January 2017, Nintendo finally confirmed details of the Switch, and in doing so also showcased the final piece of the puzzle that would make it truly viable as a virtual reality console: the Joycon controllers. Designed to attach to the sides of the touchscreen for on-the-go gaming, or be removed and used as either motion or conventional controllers, these unconventional devices have elicited mixed reactions from users.

However, whether you see them as an ill-conceived attempt to revive the Wii, or an awesome solution to portable gaming, the fact remains that they would be great with VR.

“The Joycon can convey to you the feeling of ice cubes colliding in a cup,” said Switch producer Yoshiaki Koizumi during the Direct. “They can even tell the number of ice cubes in a glass, and you can feel water filling the glass. This new sense of realism is produced by the precision of HD Rumble.”

As revelations as about controllers go, it didn’t exactly thrill many of the gaming hardcore. But for VR it could be something else. The standard for VR controllers is effectively already motion controllers, but the added HD Rumble could add a whole extra tier of realism to the world of VR.

You heard it here first

Although virtual reality is not officially a part of the Switch’s future, it’s clear that Nintendo is keeping its options open when it comes to VR. And as and when it does decide to add such functionality to the console, it will simply be a matter of releasing the headset as a new accessory and providing a simple software update.

One issue, of course, is power: the Switch would not be a particularly powerful console for virtual reality, and so would likely be on a par with smartphone-based systems rather than anything more powerful.

However, there is undoubtedly a market for a family focused virtual reality system, and Nintendo certainly could fill that niche. The company could even play into the appeal of the retro, by styling the headset like the original Virtual Boy.

With all this in mind, I’m taking the unusual step of ending this article with a series of predictions, because despite Nintendo’s often erratic business practices, it seems very likely that – barring the collapse of the virtual reality industry – the Switch will support VR at some point in the future.

First, I predict that the Switch will have some form of VR support by the end of 2018. This will give Nintendo adequate time to establish the console before adding additional features, but also takes into account the shorter generations that the company appears to be pursuing.

Next, Nintendo will offer two styles of headset: one that is styled in line with the Switch hardware, and another that will be styled like the Virtual Boy. The latter will be available only as a limited run, and most fans will end up paying far more than the retail price as, like the recently released Classic Mini NES, it will be sold out pretty much everywhere.

And finally, Nintendo will offer a VR gaming experience unlike that explored by any other company. Because it wouldn’t be Nintendo if it didn’t offer something completely different than the norm.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.