How good is the 3D on the Nintendo 3DS, and how does it work?

The Nintendo 3DS lets you play games in 3D without having to wear any glasses. But how good is the 3D effect? We tell you exactly how good, and explain how it works. With diagrams!

Luke Westaway Senior editor
Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.
Luke Westaway
4 min read

You've probably heard a thing or two about Nintendo's brand-new handheld games console, the Nintendo 3DS. It's the follow-up to the immensely popular DSi, and as Ninty is wasting no time in telling you, it lets you play games in eye-snapping 3D without having to wear any dorky glasses.

It's an innovative feature, but is it actually any good? Read on for our verdict on the 3DS' 3D tech, and impress your friends by knowing how the blasted thing actually works.

Wait, glasses-free 3D? What is this black magic?

Viewing a 3D image on a screen without using any glasses might sound complicated, but in fact the technology used in the 3DS is deceptively simple. As your eyes perceive the world from slightly different angles, with the two images melded in your brain to provide the sensation of depth, to make 3D appear on a single panel, you have to make the screen show two images at once -- one for each eye.

The 3DS has a thin layer in front of its display called a 'parallax barrier', and this thin sheet is full of really tiny gaps. These gaps mean certain parts of the screen are hidden from one angle, but visible from another. So with your two eyes placed at different angles to the screen, each peeper sees a slightly different picture.

All the 3DS has to do is slice up two very similar images and place them behind the barrier, arranged so your left eye can view certain parts of the image, and the right eye can see others. With a different image hitting each eye, your brain does its combination voodoo, and a sense of depth is achieved.

This diagram, adapted from one on Wikipedia, shows how the 3DS' screen is able to deliver separate images to each of your eyes.

So does it look good?

Absolutely. The 3DS isn't the only implementation of this tech we've seen to date, but it's the best use of it so far. We've played several of the 3DS' launch titles, and while some games make better use of the effect than others, the sense of depth, the fluidity of the 3D and a marked lack of blurriness means you can relax and let the effect sink in while you play games. It's rarely distracting, and it can make for an enjoyable, immersive gaming experience.

More impressive than the 3D alone is the fact you can adjust the effect, or turn it off entirely whenever you want. A slider to the right of the top screen adjusts the level of the 3D -- slide it downwards and the effect lessens, flattening by degrees until the image is completely flat. The presence of this slider makes us think the 3D effect will -- in all games -- be an optional visual enhancement, rather than a gameplay necessity. If you don't want it, you can turn it off at your leisure. In 2D things look great too, with the screen vibrant and sharp.

Too good to be true?

It's true the 3D effect is genuinely impressive, but there are situations where you'll want to turn it off. Here's why. As we mentioned before, your eyes need to be lined up with the screen in such a way that each eye sees different parts of the display through the parallax barrier. That's quite a precise angle -- you'll need to be viewing the display from exactly head-on. If you move your head out of this sweet spot, the spell is broken and the image will appear blurry.

Practically speaking, you won't be able to get two people side by side enjoying the 3D effect at once, and even experiencing it by peeking over someone's shoulder is more or less impossible (something ably demonstrated by disappointed passers-by in our office).

A bumpy flight or juddering Tube journey will also prove a bit too much, and there are also several games, such as Super Money Ball, that require you to move the 3DS around to control the in-game action. At times like these, you'd be better off switching to 2D mode.

We're not too concerned though -- as we said, the 3D effect looks great, and if you fancy going without it for a while, it's easy to switch off. Ideally we'd rather the effect had a wider viewing angle, so we never felt the need to switch it off, but as this isn't the case, we appreciate having a degree of control over the multi-dimensional action.

We suggest getting your mitts on a 3DS to check the effect out for yourself. It's impressive, and we're excited to see what developers can do with the technology.

The 3DS isn't all flashy stuff flying virtually into your face -- there's a tonne of other neat features rammed inside its diminutive chassis to keep you occupied. We suggest reading our full review to find out more, including details on battery life, wireless features such as StreetPass, and whether or not the new controls feel any good. Then let us know whether you'll be buying one in the comments, or on our resolutely two-dimensional Facebook wall.