After the internet rumour mill went into overdrive a couple of weeks ago suggesting Nintendo was once again heading to the land of virtual reality (VR), for once the rumours weren’t wildly inaccurate with Nintendo announcing the Labo VR Kit for its portable Switch console today. While certainly an interesting concept, prior to actually testing it in the flesh I’m torn between thinking this is both a good and bad idea for the VR industry as a whole.
Nintendo Labo: VR Kit
The Japanese gaming giant released its Labo construction platform almost a year ago, encouraging kids to do more than just stare at a screen by involving both the physical and digital worlds. Using cardboard cut-outs – which don’t require any cutting, glueing or sticky tape – children could make bikes or pianos that work with specific Nintendo software. With three kits available, they soon proved to be highly popular, offering unique gameplay that only the Nintendo Switch could provide.
The Nintendo Labo: VR Kit is the fourth in the series (Toy-Con #4), featuring a possible six contraptions to build depending on which kit you actually buy. All of them revolve around the ‘VR Goggles’ which holds the Switch and can then be attached to the rest.
Unlike most of the VR headsets you see today, the Nintendo Labo: VR Kit goes for the Google Cardboard style of VR, where you hold the headset up to your face, instead of a head strap to support it.
Helping Nintendo test the VR waters
Nintendo isn’t dumb, it has been burnt by VR before way back in the 90s with the disastrous release of the Virtual Boy, with its red and black screens and the fact it needed to be table mounted.
Since the consumer rollout of VR in 2015/16, I’d say there has been a consistent look towards Nintendo regarding whether it would enter the VR field again, with occasional quotes from employees teasing the possibility. And for the company going down the Labo approach makes complete sense. Nintendo has (sort of) taken the mobile phone path which is cheaper for both it and consumers plus there isn’t the need to spend a ridiculous amount of money developing hardware that might become a commercial failure.
Then if the Labo VR Kit does prove to be overwhelmingly popular and receives great feedback then that could easily spur Nintendo on to further invest in VR, which would quite frankly be a boon for the consumer side of the industry.
The Good, the Bad, and the Cardboard
However, not all of this completely sits right with me – from a VR enthusiasts point of view. I love the Nintendo Switch – I have one myself – but it was never really designed for VR, Nintendo have just tacked it on. And the problem with that is the quality of the experience.
Now I’m not saying Nintendo would do a half-arsed job on the software side, but the Switch is only 720p, and looking at the images of the VR Goggles I’m not sure whether the whole screen would be in view. So there could be quite a bit of screendoor, and what about latency and refresh rates, can the Switch provide a smooth experience? So many questions.
While those queries can only be answered with a demo, what also concerns me is the whole experience of putting a Nintendo Switch on my face. The design definitely steers towards short gameplay sessions, because even holding the VR Goggles players arms are going to tire – even more so with the larger items like the Blaster. Nintendo gets around this by stating in its press release: “Nintendo Labo: VR Kit encourages passing around the Toy-Con creations among a group of people so everyone in the room can easily join in on the fun.” So no epic Beat Saber sessions then!
Which leads to the question. Will the Nintendo Labo: VR Kit make VR seem even more like a fad as players eventually get bored of holding the kit to their face?
The Nintendo knock-on effect
If the platform doesn’t provide a great experience then the answer could easily be yes, stalling what could be enhanced mainstream adoption. If it is awesome then there could be the double whammy effect of Nintendo investing further, or more consumers looking for bigger and better VR experiences offered by the like of Oculus, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR.
I really hope that the Nintendo Labo: VR Kit is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Yet its toylike cardboard quality doesn’t evoke a durable, hardwearing solution to longterm mainstream adoption. That’s still in the ballpark of the major VR players.