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Nintendo returns to VR with US$40 DIY headset 

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Nintendo's build-it-yourself set of cardboard goggles and controllers for its Switch console. The VR system has been designed to work within the limits of the Switch's processing power, and to minimise the chances of making players dizzy or sick.

Tokyo

A QUARTER-CENTURY after its disastrous first foray into virtual reality, Nintendo has returned to the technology with an affordable headset that has potential for bigger things.

The Labo VR Kit, which went on sale Friday and starts at US$40, is a build-it-yourself set of cardboard goggles and controllers for Nintendo's Switch console. The VR system has been designed to work within the limits of the Switch's processing power, and to minimise the chances of making players dizzy or sick.

Its simplistic "mini-games" seem aimed primarily at casual gamers, particularly parents with youngish kids, who might want to try VR without dropping the many hundreds of dollars that more advanced systems like Facebook Inc.'s Oculus Rift can cost.

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If the VR kit sells, it could help enhance Nintendo's games lineup without the company having to produce a bunch of new hits. Last week's announcement that popular games Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be compatible with the cardboard headset generated more buzz than the headset's original unveiling and pushed shares to a two-month high.

"Labo VR's killer apps are certainly Mario Odyssey and Zelda," said Serkan Toto, founder of Tokyo-based consultancy Kantan Games. "If Labo VR sells, Nintendo will follow up with more content, first and foremost support for Mario Kart."

A US$40 version of the Labo kit comes with the basic goggles and a gun-like controller used to blast aliens. The full US$80 version adds more controllers that are used in other mini-games to take photos of fish, fly like a bird, or paint in 3D. Another mode tests players' creativity by letting them devise their own basic games.

So far, the software lacks the depth of Nintendo's flagship titles and feels similar to the quirky mini-games released for other Labo products, which have mostly failed to attract a wide audience.

The headset also makes painfully obvious the graphical limits of the Switch, which sports just half the pixel density of today's top smartphones and a third the pixels of high-end VR headsets. The result: jagged 3D models and a noticeably low frame rate.

But Nintendo knows the Switch isn't the ideal VR hardware. That's why each mini-game in the Labo VR Kit is designed to be played at most for 5 to 10 minutes. The company has also opted against including a headset strap, meaning players are forced to hold the goggles up to their eyes. That also helps discourage using the system in anything other than short bursts, and encourages friends to pass it around.

Nintendo's return to VR comes as a surprise after years of executives dismissing the technology as difficult to design games for or questionably safe.

The company had reason to be sceptical. The Virtual Boy, its disastrous first attempt at a VR headset, flopped with gamers in 1995 due to lousy graphics, boring games, risks of nausea, and even worries over brain damage. Nintendo experimented with another VR product for its GameCube console a decade later, but ultimately shelved it.

That baggage is one reason why Nintendo has opted for a low-key approach with its new VR kit, foregoing a big launch event on Friday. BLOOMBERG