Virtual reality is limited by expensive headsets and poor games, but Nintendo NX could change all that
With the news that Nintendo's forthcoming NX console is a handheld screen with controllers for ears, we're closing in on a much more complete picture of what the Kyoto-based company's next five years may look like – a seamless gaming experience that moves freely between your TV and your pocket. Ditching the traditional console model is either another genius move that recalls the success of the 100 million-selling Wii, or the last physical product we'll see from the company before it becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Pokémon Company.
It's potentially genius because it could slay the twin dragons that have been stalking Nintendo for a while now: a decline in relevance with graphics-obsessed console gaming audiences and the steady erosion of its handheld business, thanks to kids favoring phones and tablets over the 3DS. But its focus on a phablet-size device could – if it's the right size – give it easy access to another more nascent trend: VR.
The NX should follow the lead of Samsung's Gear VR headset, which at just $99 brought a workable version of virtual reality to Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 phone users via a partnership with Oculus. Samsung won't say how many Gear VRs have been sold, but it did reveal that usage peaked at over 1 million users in March of this year, powered by games such as Lands End, from the makers of the colorful iPad hit, Monument Valley. Thanks to a giveaway with Samsung S7 pre-orders, the numbers now are certainly higher and prove that you can slot a mobile phone – even a phablet-sized one – into a plastic visor and make a perfectly serviceable VR headset.
The NX should function exactly the same way, and who better to make VR a mainstream technology than the company that made motion control a global success with the Wii?
Such a device-as-headset setup neatly sidesteps a number of problems currently dogging the premium VR headsets made by Oculus, HTC and the forthcoming PlayStation VR. Because Gear VR uses the phone as the screen, it doesn't require you to be tethered to a computer or console. Neither would the the NX. Also, if the NX does indeed have detachable controllers, they could contain Wii-style sensors that broadcast their position, enabling you to interact with games using your hands.
There's another, more fundamental problem with the current VR platforms: no killer apps. Mining Nintendo's deep bench of world-class characters and games, from The Legend of Zelda to Super Mario World to Smash Bros. to create unique VR experiences could be just what the industry needs to convince the public to jump in.
And then there's price. Using the NX to provide both the screen and power for a headset would make a move into VR insanely cheap for both Nintendo and players – simply pack a plastic headset in with a popular game for $99 or with the console itself. It's a strategy that worked brilliantly for the 22 million-selling Wii Fit in 2007, which packaged the plastic Balance Board in with the game (though it didn't hurt that TMZ caught Oprah Winfrey buying a Wii at a Walmart soon after). It would be a lot cheaper to produce – and to buy – than an Oculus or HTC Vive, whose price points are considered too high for mainstream success in the near term.
So far, so possible, but don't expect to see a headset packed in at launch. Both Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima have expressed interest in virtual reality – Miyamoto has publicly declared they're researching it – but there are concerns. "Long play sessions are an issue," said Miyamoto of VR, at the company's recent shareholder meeting. "We want to release something that can be played for long periods, carries value, and is affordable. We want parents to feel at ease."
Still, if Nintendo is wary of cutting kids off completely from the room around them, a rear-mounted camera on the NX could also pass-through live video of the room to the screen and deliver an augmented reality (AR) experience, more like Microsoft's HoloLens or the long-gestating Magic Leap. Pokémon Go is already doing this on phones, but Nintendo's Pikmin games – which feature tiny creatures that live in backyards and woodlands – would be another natural fit, as would a new Pokemon Snap. AR would certainly be a match for the company's oft-repeated mantra of encouraging social, family-friendly play.
Speaking to Glixel about VR tech at this year's E3 show, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé, was characteristically pragmatic but left the door open. "The question for us is when is the technology going to be mass-market-ready," he said. "We don't see that it's mass-market-ready right now but there certainly could be a point in the future when it is, and when it is mass-market ready is when you can expect Nintendo to be there."
If the NX is as powerful and as portable as we think, it should be a matter of when, not if.