The Nintendo 3DS, in stores over the weekend, gives us a window into not just where gaming is headed, but the world of electronics in general: 3D without the glasses.
And it's not just for handheld games for your kids, but smartphones, laptops and eventually big-screen TVs, too.
Many may still see 3D as a gimmick fueled by the success of the 2010 movie "Avatar," and not everyone is thrilled about it.
But a decade from now it may well be that today's ordinary color displays will be seen as a throwback that is as retro as black-and-white is now. And, funny thing, the first serious inroad is on a child's gaming platform.
By the end of 2011 at least two smartphones, the HTC Evo 3D and LG Optimus 3D, will have glasses-free 3D screens and be able to shoot 3D photos and video. Apple, Nintendo's biggest competitor in handheld gaming, is rumored to be developing a 3D iPod Touch.
Samsung earlier in March showed off a 55-inch, glasses-free 3D television prototype, and said the technology for TVs could be commercially viable in three years.
The $249 Nintendo 3DS, which looks much like other versions of the DS, already can shoot and display 3D photos, and by this summer will be able to stream Netflix videos via Wi-Fi or shoot and display 3D movies.
Millions of units were in the pipeline to the North American market before the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, so no quake-related shortages are seen soon.
That said, Nintendo historically does not ship enough products to meet initial demand (some say this is intentional, to increase desirability). Analysts say Nintendo hopes to sell about 16 million units in the next year.
The 3D experience on this type of glasses-free technology is not as “in your face” as 3D at the movie theater. Instead of images leaping out at you, it's as if you're looking through a window into a world that has depth.
Technology used on the Nintendo's 4-inch screen is not new, only the commercial implementation.
Called a parallax-barrier LCD screen, it works as if two sets of thin blinds were laid over the screen, so each eye sees a different view. Your brain then stitches the two views together.
The 3DS has a slider switch that allows the viewer to adjust the difference in the two views, from full-blown 3D down to 2D. Those who are bothered by 3D can adjust accordingly.
Nintendo warns that children age 6 and younger should not use the 3D mode because their eyes are not fully developed. But some optometrists have been quoted as viewing 3D gaming as a positive development that will lead to earlier detection of eye problems in the young. Differences in vision from one eye to the other affect the ability to view three-dimensional images.
Because the parallax-barrier LCD relies on a viewer looking at the screen from a specific angle, it is much easier to implement on small screens, up to the size of a laptop. If it doesn't look right to you, just adjust the angle.
Big-screen TVs will be harder. Change from one side of the couch to the other and the display might appear in 2D. So companies like Samsung are working to produce multiple viewing angles in which 3D will appear.
The prototype Samsung showed in March had nine viewing angles that would work. The company says ultimately only a screen with 32 viewing angles will be wholly satisfactory, and that could take a decade to bring to market.