Just over 20 years ago, Nintendo released its least successful game console ever: the Virtual Boy. It was a red and black monstrosity with mostly terrible games.
- Evan Amos/Wikimedia
The console was quickly scrapped in favor of more traditional hardware like the Nintendo 64 and GameCube.
But in the past few years, virtual reality has re-emerged as a viable medium. Headsets from Google, Facebook, and Samsung are all commercially available; most notably, Nintendo’s two main competitors, Sony and Microsoft, are making major investments in VR.
- Sony’s PlayStation VR headset launched in October – it’s powered by the most popular game console in the world, the PlayStation 4. In 2017, Microsoft is planning to launch a far more powerful Xbox One, currently dubbed “Project Scorpio.” That console will be capable of powering high-end VR headsets; the expectation is that Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset will work with Project Scorpio, but nothing specific has been announced just yet.
So that leaves Nintendo.
The company’s next console, the Nintendo Switch (above), is set to arrive in March 2017. It’s a home console/portable console hybrid – the idea is you can play the same games at home as you do on, say, the bus to work. It’s rumored to be nearly as powerful as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The gimmick of the Switch is its detachable screen. The screen itself is the console, processing and all – it’s basically a tablet with a bunch of peripherals.
You attach the screen to two “Joy-Con” controllers and it becomes a portable console. Or you slide out the kickstand and use the controllers as gamepads, one in each hand. Or you slide the screen into a dock at home and it becomes a home console.
Or, apparently, you slide the screen into a VR headset and it becomes a full-on virtual reality head-mounted display:
That image comes from a recently published patent, which Nintendo filed back in June 2016. The patent seemingly details the tablet at the heart of Nintendo Switch: the way it connects to a home console dock, and the way it connects to the Joy-Con controllers to become a portable gamepad.
And then, in the final example images of how the device could work, a headset is shown with a Switch tablet being slid into it (above). The corresponding text is fascinating:
“Fig. 60 [the headset patent drawing] is a diagram showing an example HMD [head-mounted display] accessory to which the main unit can be attached. An HMD accessory to be described below as an example accessory can be used as a so-called HMD (head-mounted display) with the main unit attached thereto.”
To quickly translate that jargon into English, the text description of the headset image directly identifies it as a VR headset (an “HMD”) that can be used by slotting the Switch tablet into the front. For comparison, Samsung’s Gear VR works similarly: Your Galaxy phone becomes the device powering VR and the screen used to see it, through the lenses of a peripheral headset.
There’s a ton more text about the headset in the patent, from how it can detect movement using the sensors already built into the Switch tablet, to how the Joy-Con gamepads can be used as controllers for the headset, and how the headset has lenses built in that will widen images for VR use.
All that said, patents aren’t necessarily plans. Hardware companies like Apple and Nintendo publish patents regularly, and often those patents lead to nothing. It’s entirely possible that this is little more than an idea. If nothing else, it hints at a potential unannounced feature of the Switch – everything else detailed in the patent has already been revealed as actual plans by Nintendo for the Switch.
A representative for Nintendo offered the following statement to Business Insider: “We have no comment regarding this patent matter.”