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Nintendo 3DS: Handheld hi-tech

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The Nintendo 3DS goes on sale worldwide today. For a device that is a world first in bringing 3D to handheld gaming without requiring special glasses, it has generated surprisingly little hype. But should it? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK takes the device through the gadget 5 Question User Test to answer that question.

First, a disclaimer: I’m a 3D sceptic. I’ve seen numerous 3D devices in action, and have always scoffed at the idea that people will pay a premium for an inferior experience. But that is in the realm of TV, which is meant to be a social, relaxing experience for a group of people ‚ typically a family. 3D TV is simply not up to enhancing that experience yet.

Handheld gaming was also never seen as a prime candidate, purely because the assumption was always made that 3D had to be immersive to work. Think cinema. Thing large screen. For Nintendo, it was a case of literally applying that tired old cliché: think out of the box.

The Nintendo 3DS is a shocking device, because it is so surprisingly good. To illustrate this claim, let’s see how it does on the Gadget 5 Question user Test:

1. Is it ready to use?

As ready as any device that first needs to be charged. That only takes a couple of hours, so count on just a little delayed gratification. Then it also needs calibration, but that is a very large world for a very quick and simple process. Count this is as a box well ticked.

2. Is it easy to use

I usually try the Kid Test for entertainment gadgets: hand it to a 9-year-old with only one instruction: try this for 10 minutes. Within two minutes, avatars had been created for the Mii Plaza as well as for a pre-installed shoot-em-up game called face Face Raiders. And in less than 180 seconds, my face in 3D was being used by my own child for target practise. Not nice!

But seriously, Face Raiders is a great example of both the simplicity and complexity of the Nintendo 3DS: it uses the built-in 3D camera to capture your or anyone else’s face, drawing on both a dual camera system used for creating 3D images and a face-recognition tool that ensures the face being captured is centered. The face is then placed in a floating helmet that seems to appear randomly in the air, using the room where you are located as the backdrop. Miss the face with a shot, and you appear to blast holes in the wall and ceiling. For some strange reason, 9-year-olds love that feature as much as the device itself.

3. Does it operate as advertised?

Let’s put it this way: the pre-marketing of the 3DS had left me doubtful that someone would want to use this instead of the standard DS or DSi. The experience of using it for a few days has left me astonished that the rest of the industry isn’t rushing to catch up.

There are a few provisos. While I believe any consumer gadget should be so intuitive that one should never have to read the manual, in this case make an exception by reading the section of the Operations Manual dealing with Eye Strain and Motion Sickness. It recommends taking a break of 10 to 15 minutes every half hour when using the 3D feature, and every hour when not suing it. I would go further, though: when using the 3D feature at full strength, give it a break every 15 minutes, especially if you are under the age of 12.

Nintendo themselves have warned that using the 3D function can result in dizziness and even nausea, and the only cure is to stop for a while. The device has a very simple and highly visible 3D depth slider, which sets the strength of the 3D experience. That allows you to turn 3D off altogether, which means the image goes flat, but the games can still be played. Most users will find a comfortable level at between half and three-quarters strength. For 3D photos, however, full-strength gives the best experience.

Aah, yes, those 3D photos: my first test was to photograph a bookshelf. And that’s all the photo showed: a bookshelf lined with books. But then I pulled a few books out of alignment and photographed it again. Suddenly, the image came alive. The lesson was instant: photograph scenes or things that have depth if you want to see depth in the resultant image. Photos of more than one person work best if the subjects are at slightly different distances from the photographer. Don’t expect to take action photos on this device, but it points the way to future possibilities in consumer-oriented cameras.

As for sound recording, Wi-Fi connectivity, and data transfer between 3DS systems, let’s just say this is not your grandfather’s handheld gaming device.

4. Is it innovative?

The ‚innovative‚ box gets ticked for any number of elements: the 3D camera, the integration of games with the environment, the ability to incorporate self-created images with games, the 3D depth adjustment option, an activity log to measure both exercise and gameplay ‚Ķ in short, I have seldom found myself so constantly amazed by a new gadget.

Which brings me to one of the highlights of the device, and one of my initial areas of scepticism about 3D. ‚Now if they could include augmented reality ‚Ķ‚ had been a regular whine on my part about 3D devices. Augmented reality, or AR, is the linking of an image or symbol viewed or captured by any camera or viewing device, to additional digital information about that image.It can be simple text information, or it can be a 3D image that appears overlayed on the scene you are watching (see Wikipedia’s overview http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_reality).

Lo and behold, the 3Ds provides an entire suite of what it calls AR Games. Six cards are provided with the device, and each card opens up a series of 3D gaming experiences when viewed through the DS. The imagery is still a little primitive, due to the size of the cameras and the viewing screen, but it points the way to a dazzling future of enhanced 3D experiences. For many, though, this will be their first experience of augmented reality, and they will be astonished ‚ the kids no less than the adults. Having played with AR before, I was still dazzled.

5. Is it value for money?

This is not only a gaming device. It’s also a 3D camera, and a viewer for augmented reality. It comes with extensive entertainment options even before you’ve bought a game. At a local selling price of R2799, it’s not cheap. But when you look at those features, and compare it to a DS for R1599 and a DSi XL for R1999, the price tag is almost as surprising as the device itself. If your budget stretches that far, it is superb value.

In conclusion

The 3DS is one of the very few new gadgets that have given me the sense of travelling a little further into the future. The gaming experience will be the ultimate proof of the device, and we will review the games being launched today in the coming months. But on the evidence of exploring the device as shipped, this is a handheld revolution.

Follow Arthur on Twitter on @art2gee

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