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Nintendo Drops Hint Suggesting Renewed Interest in Virtual Reality

Nintendo’s latest comments suggest a company that hasn’t altogether ruled out making another run at virtual reality.

by Nicholas Deleon
Feb 2 2016, 3:09pm

Image: Sergey Galyokin/Flickr

Add Nintendo to the list of companies that are kicking the tires of virtual reality. Again, in Nintendo's case.

The Japanese videogame company described virtual reality on Tuesday morning as an "interesting technology," and said that it's currently researching the space. No further details were given.

The comments, from Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima's earnings call, echo similar comments made by Apple CEO Tim Cook last week, in which he described VR as being "really cool [with] some interesting applications." Shortly after Cook's comments came a report in the Financial Times noting that Apple has built prototype VR helmets following a hiring spree of VR experts.

What's perhaps most interesting about Nintendo's comments is that they directly contradict what the company said less than a year ago. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime told Polygon in June 2015 that VR—as in high-profile devices like the Oculus Rift—was not "fun" or "social," brushing aside the entire field as merely being "just tech." What's changed in the interim? Well, we now have an Oculus Rift release date and price ($599, March 28), genuine, non-gaming applications for VR and 360 video (like a recent New York Times documentary on the Iowa caucuses and new tools to, say, design your next kitchen in VR), and the steady drumbeat of bad vibes suggesting that Nintendo needs to move on from the Wii U as quickly as possible.

Of course, any discussion about Nintendo and VR must include the Virtual Boy, a home console that was released only in Japan and North America in 1995. It was designed by original GameBoy creator Gunpei Yokoi, and used a LCD to display what at the time were fascinating 3D graphics. The console is arguably Nintendo's most visible flop—Yokoi left the company in 1996—and had only a handful of games available before production ceased in late 1995. You can chalk up its failure to a number of issues, including the near-simultaneous release of more powerful consoles like the Sony PlayStation and the discomfort caused by crooking your neck to play the thing. (Virtual Boy emulators are available, and work with red and blue 3D glasses, if you're interested in testing out the games.)

Still, it's difficult to grok exactly what Nintendo means when it calls VR an "interesting technology," without knowing more about its plans for NX, the codename for its next console. Will it be a traditional home console like the PS4 or Xbox One, or some kind of hybrid that combines aspects of a home console with mobile gaming? In any event, expect E3 this year—publishers are already sending invitations for their press conferences—to be a veritable VR showcase.