5 ways the Nintendo 3DS predicted the future

Commentary: The Nintendo 3DS is going to be five years old next year, but its weird hardware ideas have a hidden genius...and don't seem so strange anymore.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
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The Nintendo 3DS is a great gaming device that is also forward-looking.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Remember that little folding game system that Nintendo released back in 2011? Almost five years later, it's gone through many forms. And yes, it's showing its age...but I still love it. The Nintendo 3DS is a great little game device. But it's also a forward-looking one.

Do you believe me? Nintendo often gets hit for being behind-the-times, or less cutting-edge compared to the rest of the gadget landscape. But while playing my New Nintendo 3DS XL again recently, and realized it actually was ahead of the game in a lot of ways. Despite its failings -- and there are plenty of those -- let me tell you why the 3DS actually presaged many of the trends that are driving the current gaming landscape.

Its glasses-free 3D and motion controls are an early version of virtual reality.

The 3DS has much-maligned 3D effects that don't even require glasses to use. Let's just step back and appreciate that this is somewhat amazing. And the latest New Nintendo 3DS actually improves its eye-tracking tech to make the 3D effects nearly seamless. It feels like a little doorway into another world. Or, something semi-virtual. Play one of the 3DS games where you tilt to control, and it effectively becomes nearly like VR without the goggles on. It's an immersive 3D game system, years before Samsung's Gear VR ever existed.

Nintendo beat Microsoft to augmented reality with their handheld.


It has augmented reality, too.

Does Microsoft HoloLens impress you with how it makes alien spiders seemingly explode out of living-room walls in Microsoft's demo videos? Consider that the 3DS has preinstalled software that enables 3D augmented reality (AR) right out of the box. Face Raiders (when you look past its awkward title) is a shooter that throws floating heads in your living room. Little games using included AR cards can turn your desk into a miniature golf course you can walk around, or an archery range. The graphics are more primitive, but it was undoubtedly advanced for its time.

It has gamified fitness.

You can turn the steps you take every day into play coins that can be spent on mini-games and unlockable bonuses. Yes, the 3DS has an accelerometer that can work as a pocket pedometer of sorts while the system's in sleep mode. The ability to reward physical activity with game rewards is still rare and unique, and not done nearly enough. I'm waiting for Microsoft to figure this out with the Microsoft Band and Xbox One.

Nintendo 3DS XL

The Nintendoverse is one of the only online spaces that feels truly safe for kids.

CBS Interactive

Its approach to online for kids is smartly cautious.

We all laughed at Nintendo's locked-down way of handling being online: making players exchange friend codes as well as not being able to freely chat with people in games. Who's laughing now? The risks of hacking and cloud security have only increased since the 3DS first debuted. Nintendo's methods of online interaction (like the fact that you can't easily redownload games across devices) feel arcane, but there are moments of genius. Streetpass turns other people with 3DS systems into beacons, sending little prizes and Mii avatars back and forth. It's pretty harmless fun, and since it's not live chat nor can you use the Mii avatars you collect to start a chat later, it doesn't mean you're really meeting real people at all. In other words, the Nintendoverse is one of the only online spaces that feels truly safe for kids. It's one of the reasons I prefer my son play Nintendo games.

It was a pioneer in the realm of second-screen gaming.

I'm not sure how many screens I have lying around my desk at any time, and when I'm home I'm always watching TV while doing something else at the same time. The original Nintendo DS first explored double-screen gaming back in 2004, but the idea of two screens offering several things at once seems a lot less strange today than it did back then. In fact, the 3DS could do even more. It's not a good enough companion to Nintendo's TV-connected Wii U. The Wii U GamePad attempted to reinvent the second-screen relationship, but combining both concepts would make the most sense. Between watches, tablets, phones, laptops and TVs all allowing streaming and casting with ease, we're all multi-screen people now.

I still like the Nintendo 3DS. It has lots of great games, and you can find it on sale easily. It's a good holiday to rediscover its genius again.

Editors' note: This is a slightly updated and retitled version of a story that was originally published on December 3, 2015.