3DS updates its handheld DSi gaming system

Nintendo is embracing 3D — but without the glasses.

The videogame maker announced Tuesday it was working on the Nintendo 3DS, an updated version of its handheld DSi gaming system that will incorporate 3D technology, but won’t require special glasses to view.

It is the first gaming company to announce portable plans for 3D.

The 3DS, which will play existing DS games, will go on sale sometime in its next fiscal year, which begins in April. The company referred to the system as the successor to the Nintendo DS series.

Nintendo does not plan to reveal additional details about the 3DS until mid-June at E3, the video game industry’s annual trade show in Los Angeles. But by confirming in advance that glasses will not be necessary to experience the visual effects, the company is playing to its mass-market strengths.

Consoles such as the PlayStation 3 face an uphill battle in converting players to the technology, since the heavy (and expensive) glasses that accompany 3D-enabled sets will likely be a distraction for gamers rather than an enhancement. If Nintendo is able to create a realistic 3D experience without glasses, the 3DS could significantly build upon the DS’s life to date sales of 125 million units.

It could also score with consumers — especially the youngest ones who already demand that their parents buy them a DS — because the 3DS will negate the need to wear 3D glasses that don’t fit or slide off small faces.

Although the first to adapt 3D to a portable device, Nintendo is not the first to embrace 3D technology. Sony had already announced it will distribute a firmware upgrade later this year to make select upcoming games on the PS3 playable in stereoscopic 3D. The company has shown several titles using the technology at trade shows like CES and the Game Developer’s Conference. (Microsoft has no existing plans to enter the space, but has said that the Xbox 360 could support 3D with a downloadable system update.)

Nintendo’s focus with the 3DS is to gain an upper hand in its escalating battle with the iPhone rather than to compete with emerging console technologies. Apple has been making steady inroads into portable gaming, offering quality games for less than $10. Titles for the Nintendo DSi typically cost between $20 and $40.

With a 3D display incorporated into the 3DS, however, Nintendo will be able to further differentiate its offerings from Apple’s. The company’s handhelds already have exclusivity on some of the industry’s top game franchises, including Mario and Zelda.

The company has traditionally focused on the family market, whereas Sony and Microsoft have targeted their consoles at more adult gamers.

Additionally, the 3DS could prove to be a test balloon for the company’s future plans. When Nintendo introduced the DS in 2004, it offered a play style that was entirely different from anything the portable gaming world had experienced. Similarly, the games Nintendo made for it — including “Brain Age” and “Nintendogs” — were hardly standard fare.

What the company was doing, though, was prodding the market to see if something radically different could simultaneously keep the existing audience happy and create a new one. Encouraged by the success of the DS, Nintendo introduced the Wii — which has gone on to sell more than 67 million units, handily beating both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It’s certainly possible the 3DS is an indication that Nintendo is exploring full 3D for its next generation product.

The timing of the 3DS announcement did cause some confusion, as Nintendo will begin selling a new handheld system in North America on Sunday. The Nintendo DSi XL features a pair of screens that are virtually double the size of existing DS units.

By trumpeting a next-generation handheld system now, Nintendo sends a mixed message to consumers who are considering purchasing an XL — implying that what they’re about to buy will be outdated soon.

(Marc Graser contributed to this report).

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