In early 2016 I wrote an article about why Nintendo and VR weren't a good fit for 2016, heady days when there was a chance of the Switch - at that point still the 'NX' - being a Holiday 2016 release (in our dreams). I concluded by saying that "Virtual Reality isn't well established, efficient or affordable technology, at least not for immersive gaming. It's not yet ready for the Nintendo treatment."
Has a year of technological development changed that? Sort of.
Nintendo Switch and VR - Are They a Fit?
There's a suggestion that, either early on or later in its lifecycle, Virtual Reality will have a part to play with Nintendo Switch. Patents aren't always a solid indication of the future, but an eye-wateringly exhaustive filing for the Switch included an intriguing VR accessory (a 'head mounted display'), and talk has gone around of companies like Capcom being interested in supporting it. Then recently VR / AR-focused developer Stephen E. Dinehart IV wrote about Nintendo as an innovator, while strongly nudging and winking about VR support. The following line was one broad hint among a few.
As a Nintendo and VR/AR developer I can't say much, but I can say the fit is one made in heaven.
In my defence, that editorial in January last year did say Nintendo and VR weren't a good fit for 2016, but in truth I was also pretty darn dismissive. Today, having thought more about it and talked with my engineer father about the technology, the Switch does indeed seem like a potential platform for the concept, assuming it can handle the processing challenges that come with VR experiences. There are a number of question marks to temper optimism.
Not all of my January 2016 arguments have been invalidated by the subsequent launches of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR during that year. The latter has apparently out-sold the first two, inevitably due to its lower cost and being tied to this generation's current best-selling console. Yet in all three cases it seems that initial hype and early-adopter sales have been followed by a drop in momentum, especially with stock issues in some territories for PS VR prompting downgrades in sales expectations. As I argued in my original editorial, in all cases the technology needs to improve - I contend this is the first generation of VR to truly attempt mainstream success, after niche efforts in past decades, and it's pricey. Even Sony's option is the price of a console, and outside of the most eager day-one tech-heads I'm not sure the broader interest exists at that cost.
Nevertheless, from what I've heard from those invested there's real promise in VR gaming. There's some rubbish software, naturally, but the more talented developers have produced clever and immersive experiences; the potential is evidently there.
Cheaper VR exists, of course, with multiple smartphone tie-ins available on the market - recent trips to the cinema have bombarded me with ads for the Samsung 'range', and it's plugging its headset in that. These cheaper options basically involve clipping your phone in, with experiences like virtual tours, 360-degree videos of various kinds and even more immersive video calls.
The VR shown in the Switch patent is very much like this concept, which makes sense with the screen likely to be about 6-inches in size. Once you unclip the Joy-Con controllers and really look at it, the Switch isn't much bigger (if at all) than some 'phablet' smart devices out there, so clipping it into a headset makes sense. This option also fits the Nintendo modus operandi - it could be relatively cheap, with the processing and motion control being largely handled by the console.
What wasn't in my head in early 2016, actually, was those Joy-Con controllers; at that point they hadn't been revealed, of course. The nature of some confirmed games and that aforementioned patent suggest these little controllers will have motion capabilities, like tiny Wii Remotes. The console itself, following the lead of the 3DS and Wii U GamePad, also appears to support motion and gyroscopic controls. When you combine those features you have a mash-up of dedicated VR and smart device VR features.
Oculus, Vive and PlayStation VR all support control configurations in which you have a controller in each hand, with those accessories effectively reproducing your hands and actions in the virtual world. The aforementioned patent does seem to suggest that Joy-Con controllers could be used for that immersive motion control within VR. If the Switch VR exists and is an affordable headset accessory along the lines of those smart device products, then a picture emerges. A price-conscious Virtual Reality solution that delivers not only immersive video experiences, but fully-featured VR gaming.
Even for VR-sceptics like me, that's an exciting idea. I've had limited interest in smart device options because of the narrow feature-set, and haven't felt inclined to splash out on the PC or PS4 options.Yet an affordable product that offers both VR worlds, with that Nintendo touch? I can't deny I'd be near the front of the queue to try it. It'd be classic Nintendo; adopt existing technology in its least expensive form, present it in a new way and sprinkle some big N magic over it.
Technical Realities Vs. Hopes and Dreams
To quote an engineer's perspective, the Switch looks like a system that had VR under consideration in its design phase. Small enough to sit in a headset, with detachable controllers for each hand, taking the VR template and applying it to a multi-functional and likely affordable setup. That's not to suggest VR was top of the priority list when designing or conceiving of the concept, but that it was nevertheless likely somewhere in those design documents, planned out in case the company decided to move forward.
There are a number of doubts, of course. The screen resolution (still unconfirmed at the time of writing) and how it would look through a headset is a question mark, while the Switch itself would need to have some solid processing power to pull off any remotely ambitious VR. Sony, for its solution, had to stretch technology and include an external processing unit in addition to the PS4, so successfully running immersive VR games isn't easy. Likewise you need a hefty PC rig to get the best out of Oculus and Vive. VR gaming is tough to deliver, and if anything will turn optimistic noises and patent details into dust it'll be bottlenecks with the system itself. Perhaps these are issues that can be worked around, though it's an unknown. Right now, it's hard to shake concerns about the system's screen and processing grunt being blockers, making the concept one for the future and a New 3DS-style mid-gen upgrade.
I still think the technology is a year or two away from true mainstream success. Nevertheless, if it is possitble it could be a positive extra to add to the system's appeal. A system feature that mimics the 'Cinema' mode of the PS VR for standard games and videos, in addition to specific game support where applicable, could be tempting to a decent percentage of Switch owners. I for one would simply be interested to see what Nintendo does with the technology.
I'm not sure whether VR will feature in the Nintendo Switch Presentation, in fact my instinct is that it's too soon, but it won't be surprising if the technology does indeed come to the system or a more powerful iteration in 2-3 years time. If it's smart, effective and affordable, this sceptic will certainly give it a serious look.