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Nintendo Puts 3-D Future in Palm of Your Hand: Rich Jaroslovsky

I’m not of the generation that grew up playing handheld video games. I’m of the generation that spent a lot of time saying, “Put that damn thing away.”

Still, even I have to admit that Nintendo Co.’s new 3DS game system is pretty cool. I’ll go even further: It’s an important signpost that points the way to the future of all handheld devices, not just game players. And that signpost is labeled “3-D.”

The $250 3DS, which goes on sale in Europe today and the U.S. March 27, is the successor to Nintendo’s DS player. It’s the first mass-market gadget to feature autoscopic 3-D -- that is, a three-dimensional display that can be viewed without the need to wear special glasses.

For the video industry, autoscopic 3-D is more or less the Holy Grail. Some of the longest lines at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas surrounded Toshiba Corp. (6502)’s booth, where it was showing a prototype of a glasses-free flat-screen TV. The problem with the current state of the technology is that the sweet spot -- the viewing angle from which you get the 3-D effect on the big screen -- is very small. If you’re off to one side or the other, all you get is a blurry, headache-inducing picture. So even a large screen can essentially be watched by only one person at a time.

So Much Fun

On the other hand, a small screen, like that on a game player or mobile phone, is used by only one person anyway, and it’s relatively easy to tilt or adjust the device to get the desired effect. And that’s what makes the 3DS, even with some significant drawbacks, so much fun.

The game player is a 2.9-inch-by-5.3-inch rectangle that weighs about eight ounces and is less than an inch thick when closed. Open it and you’ll find two color displays. On the bottom, next to various buttons and controls, is a touch- sensitive color screen that responds either to your finger or the included telescoping stylus. The top display is the actual 3-D game screen, with a slider next to it that lets you intensify or lessen the three-dimensional effects.

The biggest question hanging over the 3DS is whether there’s any risk to users, particularly young ones. The player carries a warning label for children under 7, and some early testers have reported dizziness or eye strain after lengthy sessions. Different people will react differently, and it’s impossible to generalize. I had no such issues.

Depth and Perspective

For the most part, game publishers seem to be using the 3-D effect not to create objects that fly out toward you, but to provide depth and perspective; the goal is to pull you in, not throw things at you.

Three dimensions or not, any game player is only as good as the games available for it, and the initial batch of 3DS titles includes some familiar ones that gain a new measure of fun thanks to the enhanced display.

I spent a lot of time with Electronic Arts Inc. (ERTS)’s “Madden Football,” where the 3-D effect simulated, for example, the view downfield on pass plays. (I was whipped by my computer opponent, which I attribute, against all evidence, to the shortcomings of my beloved San Francisco 49ers rather than my own inadequacies.) Nintendo’s “Pilotwings Resort” sent me on fun missions around mythical Wuhu Island using seaplane, rocket belt or hang-glider.

3-D Snapshots

The 3DS has three cameras -- one in the front, useful for taking self-portraits used in various games, and two in the rear. Those rear cameras not only take three-dimensional snapshots, they’re used to play four included “AR Games” -- augmented reality.

In this case, it’s more like augmented unreality: When you aim the cameras at a special card placed on a tabletop, it comes alive with animated objects that aren’t really there. Even the tabletop itself seems to bend, warp and roll, at least on the Nintendo’s screen.

Nintendo has built a bunch of additional goodies into the 3DS, not all of which are yet activated: wireless sharing of information with other nearby 3DS units, Internet access at AT&T Inc. (T) Wi-Fi hotspots, a deal with Netflix Inc. (NFLX) to bring movies and 3-D trailers to the device.

There are a lot of disadvantages with the 3DS too. It’s expensive, kind of chunky, the battery life is worse than with Nintendo’s older players, and you have to hold it at just the right angle to get the full three-dimensional effects. Plus, of course, there are those eye-strain concerns.

That’s the price you, or the gamer in your family, pay for being on the leading edge. Other 3-D gadgets are already in the works -- AT&T and LG Electronics Inc. (066570) announced a new phone at this week’s CTIA Wireless trade show in Orlando, Florida, as did Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) and HTC Corp. (2498) -- and maybe they’ll solve some of those issues. But Nintendo has already conquered a big one: No dorky glasses.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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