The 3DS Under a Microscope
The 3DS can sometimes seem like a disorganised pile of features cobbled together and thrust uncomfortably into one package. If there’s one thing that holds it together, it’s this: every bit of the experience is designed to convince you that you’re holding a little piece of magic.
My first couple of days with it were littered with oohs and aahs and evoked a sense of wonder that has always been Nintendo’s great talent. When I decided to look at the 3D screen under my pocket microscope, I half expected to have a wonderful land of pixel-pushing pixies revealed to me. What I got instead is this:
Side by side view:
Mouse over to switch between the images [Ed - due to the popularity of this article, the mouse-over image may take a few moments to load]:
So what are we looking at here?
Well, in the first picture we have something very much like what you’ll see if you place any modern LCD device under a microscope. When you think about it, it’s rather impressive in itself that we now have ready access to electronics capable of coordinating hundreds of thousands of, well, microscopic lights in the right way in order to reproduce an image.
The second picture is where it’s at, though. It’s a remarkably simple design in many ways. The lines you see on the picture are the parallax barrier. Parallax is a word describing how the apparent relative position of things in the foreground and background change when looking at them from different viewpoints (in this case, each eye).
To demonstrate this, try a quick experiment: close one eye and then hold both index fingers up vertically, putting one a short distance in front the other so that the far finger is obscured by the near one. Keeping the fingers in place, then switch eyes, and you should now be able to see both fingers.
That is basically how a parallax barrier works. Placed just slightly in front of the LCD screen, when held at the correct distance it ensures that each eye is only able to see certain pixels on the screen. The image presented to each eye is of the same scene from a slightly different angle. The brain interprets this as a 3D image because it performs the same trick when we look at stuff in the real world. Try closing one eye again, then opening it. Ever really noticed how much flatter things look with only one eye opened, or how it takes a moment for the double image to resolve into a single, 3D image when you open both again?
So there we go: Nintendo were telling the truth. No pixies, just pixels and simple-but-impressive technology. But have I ruined the magic by looking too close? Well, to borrow the words of Richard Feynman when confronted with a similar objection: “It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”