Don’t Write Off Nintendo’s Latest Stab at VR

Arthur Schwarz was onto something. It was the turn of the century, and people were tiring of the same old entertainment. But technology was advancing. What if a device could trick our brain into seeing something that was not truly there? What if, he thought, we could look through a portal to another world?

Schwartz doesn’t work at Oculus, or HTC, or Sony. He operated a photography shop on East 14th Street in New York City. But it’s no longer there, instead occupied by a branch of Chase Bank. He’s no longer there, either; Schwarz died long ago. But when his patent for a stereoscope was granted in 1903, he devised an object, and a vision, that looks like the future even a century later.

Fourteen years earlier, in another part of the world, a company called Nintendo started selling playing cards.

Earlier this month, Nintendo announced the next addition to its Labo line of do-it-yourself cardboard contraptions. The simply named “VR Kit” arrives on April 12th. And their decidedly antiquarian take on the medium might just solve a number of problems that still malign this promising, but slow-to-launch, format.

Nintendo’s vision for VR doesn’t promise some neon-flecked cyberpunk rainstorm or a sweeping digital utopia in which to live forever. Instead, it looks a lot like Mr. Schwarz’s patent from 1903. Plus or minus a paper elephant.

Nintendo has a history of reappropriating ideas. In the 1960s, bowling was a fad in Japan. So companies built hundreds of bowling alleys. The fad died; soon there were hundreds of empty alleyways. Nintendo bought them for cheap and turned them into indoor shooting galleries using the same basic technology that powered their Custom Gunman toys. The “Laser Clay Ranges,” as they were called, were a hit.

The same frugality and resourcefulness has helped chart their course through the last forty years of video game history. “Donkey Kong” was built from the carcass of another, unpopular game (Radarscope). The Game Boy staved off higher-powered competitors for a decade using low-tech hardware and monochromatic screens. The Wii remote was first bandied about as an add-on for the GameCube; instead of throwing away the idea, Nintendo stuck it in the vault and relaunched the product when the time was right.

Those three recycled ideas–the first cinematic arcade game; the first modern-day handheld; a motion gaming phenomenon–were world-beaters and industry changers. Their next big idea isn’t to rewrite the rules but remind us of where we’ve already been. The Kyoto-based company believes the time is right to finally launch its version of virtual reality. And this rendition of the future does not look the same as what we’ve been told to expect.

The stated goal of so much VR has long been “immersion.” But the result has been something closer to seclusion. Nintendo’s vision for VR is a pointed rebuke of what has been seen as the ideal experience: an all-encompassing escape to some secondary world other than our own.

VR proselytizers often state the Holodeck as the final outcome for video game and virtual reality progress. But this fictional tech, first introduced on “Star Trek,” always struck me as an absurd ideal. The characters that used it lived in space. If they opened the wrong window, they’d get sucked into a black void of cosmic death. They needed a virtual reality because their own was unsustainable and cruel.

We do not live on a spaceship. Nintendo’s take on VR is one that doesn’t seek to replace reality but elaborate on it in surprising, albeit temporary, ways.

Nintendo’s Labo VR kit is better understood as a successor to its pre-video game novelties. What was Gunpei Yokoi’s Ultra Hand–an extendable arm with pincers and Nintendo’s first consumer-grade toy–but a kind of cobbled together alteration of reality? Whereas modern VR headsets are designed for extended, solitary use, Labo VR is purpose-built to be a toe-dip into extraordinary waters: The goggles have no strap and are meant to be held to your face. And then, according to marketing bullet points at least, you’re expected to share, physically removing the goggles and giving them to someone nearby. Leave it to Nintendo to turn the stated end-goal of an entire medium and fold it inside-out.

(Or maybe they’ve just added punctuation. Labo VR is meant to be Virtual, Reality; one and then the other, an experience apart followed by an experience together.)

Days before Nintendo’s announcement, a Twitter thread made the rounds from Antti Oulasvirta, a professor at Aalto University in Finland, explaining why he feels modern virtual or augmented reality hasn’t yet hit the mainstream. His are not the ponderings of an armchair analyst; he researches computational methods and teaches in a program devoted to the study of user interface. His first four reasons–arm fatigue, lack of object manipulation, inaccuracy of input, unnatural gestures–are largely solved by Labo VR’s constraints.

Research shows arms tire after ninety seconds of extension. So games designed as short-term, shareable activities will limit discomfort. Much modern VR software demands that you interact with virtual objects floating in space; Oulasvirta says the disconnect players feel isn’t just due to the novelty of the behavior, but evolution itself. “Our hands have evolved for manipulating objects,” he writes, “not poking in the air.” Beyond the goggles themselves, Labo VR’s suite of projects asks you to clutch, twist, grab, and push real, tangible things.

All we’ve seen of Nintendo’s first virtual reality games is a promotional still shot of predictably happy teens holding a series of odd, mechanical playthings. Extrapolated from this has been a bevy of predictably unimpressed reactions from gaming press and the internet at large. The truth is we don’t know what these experiences will be. The project list reads like bad minimalist poetry: “Blaster. Camera. Elephant. Bird. Wind Pedal.” But what will we actually do? How will these experiences feel? If you’ve written off Nintendo’s first stab at what many see as the next great leap for interactive entertainment due to frame-rates, resolutions, and other cold numbers, I suggest you refer to the entry on “Boy, Game” in the annals of history and see what you find.

Will Labo VR be the mainstream breakthrough virtual reality needs? No. Will it be a major platform for Nintendo going forward? Probably not. Is it a niche experiment using unproven technology that’s worth paying attention to, if for no other reason than it stands to be weird and fun and different? Absolutely.

What we think of as true “virtual reality” may come to pass one day, but it won’t be called VR. When George Gilder accurately described a smartphone in his book “Life After Television,” he called it by another name: a teleputer. That phrase made sense thirty years ago, but now sounds foolish and naive. The same naivete results in thinking our present reality needs to become any more virtual than it already is. VR as we think we know it is doomed, a desert of empty bowling alleys. What VR will become is both inescapable and unknowable.

In the meantime, Nintendo is here doing what it does best: plucking meat from a dead thing and making it palatable to a vast, underserved audience.