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.

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