You can always rely on Nintendo to enter a new market in the most esoteric way imaginable, and we got a great example of this today with the news that the next Labo kit is going to be based around VR. After the failure of the Virtual Boy, and repeated claims that it would only enter this exciting emerging sector when it made sense and the odd rumour, the Kyoto veteran has staked its claim to immersive gaming in the most 'Nintendo' way possible – by making 'simple and shareable' VR experiences part of its Labo cardboard DIY range, a Switch-based sub-brand built around experimentation and the joy of discovery.
While some will be disappointed that Nintendo hasn't created a 'proper' headset, it's a good fit for the Labo ethos, and could potentially be a game-changer for the company and VR in general – or, as we'll discuss, it could be the total opposite.
Let's examine the positives first.
Pro: It's A Great Entry Point For VR Newbs
It's long been said that VR won't be truly mainstream until it reaches a mass-market price point, and while the cost of owning headsets like PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive has dropped over time, they're still expensive propositions. Even the more affordable options – such as Samsung's underappreciated Gear VR or Google's DayDream View – require you to own a compatible smartphone that's quite expensive on its own.
Labo VR changes that to a degree; Nintendo is offering a low-cost entry point (although you'll still need a Switch, obviously) which will appeal to those Nintendo fans who have yet to try any other VR headsets. The full set is $80, but for a more reasonable $40 you can pick up a pack with the headset and one VR Toy-Con kit, which represents pretty good value for money. With the cost barrier diminished, a lot of people who've been on the fence about VR could well take the plunge, and that could potentially lead to them investing in other, more capable headsets further down the line. Plus: look ma, no wires!
Just as you could argue that devices like the Game Boy and Nintendo DS paved the way for the acceptance of more advanced portable gadgets, Labo VR could be the key that unlocks the door of virtual reality for millions of newcomers. The fact that it's not 'worn' like a typical headset might sound like a negative, but it ties in with Nintendo's desire to make VR a more shared experience than it is currently; instead of one person playing while others get bored, the 'simple' games can be passed around the room.
When you look at the install base of other VR headsets (PSVR has sold over 3 million units in two-and-a-half years, for example), it's not a massive stretch to say that the Labo VR kit – between its two SKUs – could actually outsell that, if the product catches on with the ever-growing Switch userbase.
Pro: Nintendo Will Offer Amazing VR Experiences
Even if it doesn't always have the most advanced technology, you can rely on Nintendo to create engaging and enjoyable gameplay experiences. The company's reputation is built on crafting playable and accessible games, and we can't see any reason why that would be different with Labo VR.
Sure, these are likely to be limited in scope when compared to VR games on other platforms – don't go expecting to play a Mario Kart 8-style experience in virtual reality – but with a tight focus and clever design, the mini-games included in this new kit could overcome the inherent limitations of the technology. If Nintendo nails this side of things – and we wouldn't bet against it – then it could prove to be a vital selling point for VR as a whole, opening the eyes of a whole new audience to the potential of immersive gaming.
Pro: It Opens Up The Market For Developers
While Labo VR is going to be a self-contained product rather than an all-new accessory for Switch, there is scope for developers to include the kit in their games – as we saw with Deemo, which was updated to support the Labo Piano Toy-Con. While plenty of studios are now operating in the VR space, there are many smaller devs which haven't taken the plunge yet – and Labo VR could offer the perfect entry point for them, just as it could for gamers.
Experiments in the Labo 'Garage' environment could spark new ideas among eShop developers, invigorating a whole new sector of designers. While we'd advise against getting too excited about a potential flood of third-party Labo VR releases, it's just as foolish to say that the games you get in the kit will be the be-all and end-all.
Now let's look at the potential negatives.
Con: It Could 'Poison The Well' For VR
The timing of Nintendo's move into VR is interesting, as Blake J. Harris – author of the excellent Console Wars – has just released his next book, The History of the Future, which focuses on the creation of Oculus, the company which many people credit with kickstarting the recent renewed interest in VR. What's truly striking when you read the book is just how hard it was to develop and design a headset that ticks all of the right boxes; not only had the tech industry been trying to perfect VR off and on for the past few decades, it took Palmer Luckey and his team at Oculus months of hard work, millions of dollars and a generous helping of outside assistance to really nail the magic of virtual reality. This is not a market you simply walk into with little more than a cardboard pair of goggles.
Taking that into account, how good an experience is a headset attached to a device with a 720p display really going to be? With VR, you have to take into account screen resolution (which is halved across both eyes), frame rate (low rates make you feel sick), latency (if screens don't refresh fast enough you also feel sick) and much more besides. Can Labo VR really provide an experience which matches the best VR has to offer in 2019? It's highly, highly unlikely, and if Nintendo fumbles this, it could contribute massively to a negative public impression of the whole VR concept.
Con: The Tech Really Isn't Up To The Job
On paper, the Switch seems like a good fit for an entry-level VR device. The console has a 6-axis inertial measurement unit so it can handle head movement, and the Joy-Con are equally well-suited as (very basic) VR input devices. When you consider how decent VR experiences are on the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View – both of which adopt a similar approach – it's tempting to get excited about Labo VR, but there's one big issue: the screen.
The Switch's display packs in 1280×720 pixels, while the Samsung Galaxy 9 Plus – the newest phone to be compatible with the most recent Gear VR headset – offers four times that amount of pixels thanks to its 2960×1440 resolution. Even then, it's easy to pick out individual pixels on the Gear VR, just as it is when using Sony's PlayStation VR, which contains a 1080p OLED screen.
Simply put, things are going to look awful blocky on the Labo VR, because a 720p screen shared equally between two eyeballs really isn't up to the job; when you add in the fact that high-latency LCD panels lack the 'low persistence' of the OLEDs found in pretty much every decent headset (LCD screens traditionally introduce an unpleasant ghosting effect with rapid movement), it becomes harder than ever to get enthused about Nintendo's approach.
Then there's the issue of processing power; headsets like PSVR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive all rely on external systems to provide the grunt – systems which are more powerful than the Switch. A comparison with smartphone-based headsets would be closer to the mark, and while there are some great 3D games available (Gunjack VR being one notable example), the vast majority of 'experiences' available are based on pre-recorded, 360-degree video, and not real-time gameplay. What we'd get on Switch would presumably be even more primitive, given that the tech inside the console is a few years behind what we're seeing in modern smartphones – although Nintendo is very good at extracting as much performance as possible from humble hardware, so you never know.
Also, the lack of positional tracking – a key feature on the leading headsets on the market – means you lose a degree of immersion as the hardware can only accurately track your head's rotation, and not its position in space. This isn't much of an issue if you're creating a gaming experience where all you're doing is looking around, but titles like Astro Bot Rescue Mission on PSVR prove the worth of positional tracking beyond all doubt.
Labo VR: A Blessing Or A Curse?
While VR is certainly a growing sector, it hasn't quite hit the mainstream yet; the best headsets cost too much and – at the time of writing, at least – are tethered to consoles or PCs via cables, which take some of the immersion away. Really good VR also requires you to clear a lot of space in your living room and the setup process will, for some families, be too awkward and annoying, at least with the current technology. In short, there's a golden opportunity for a company like Nintendo to step in and clean up with a cheap, mass-market proposition that is cable-free and bundled with some engaging gameplay experiences.
Is Labo VR that proposition? It's hard to say until we've actually played the thing, but it has potential. Sure, it's going to look hopelessly primitive when compared to other VR headsets, but as a jumping-off point for VR novices, it could serve a vital gateway and could enlighten millions to the raw potential of virtual reality. Who's to say that someone who takes a punt on Labo VR won't later be emboldened to snap up a PSVR for their PS4, or even an Oculus Rift? Nintendo doesn't necessarily need to dominate the VR market with Labo (and we're not sure it ever could) for it to be considered a success; if it sells as well as the other Labo kits, then it will be a worthwhile exercise for the firm, and the experience could well lead to other, more impressive VR ventures in the future. And besides, if all it does is create more VR true believers, then it will have had a positive benefit on the industry as a whole.
However, those who have been keenly following the fluctuating fortunes of VR for the past few decades might be concerned that a poor user experience with Labo VR could give millions of potential converts the wrong impression; if this is your first taste of virtual reality, then you're almost certainly not going to be getting the best modern VR can offer: a low-resolution (and high latency) screen, no positional tracking and – lest we forget – you have to hold the bloody thing to your face, rather than 'wear' it. Depending on what your expectations are, Labo VR could either be an eye-opening gateway drug or a bitter pill which turns you off virtual reality forever.