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Nintendo patent filings suggest the Switch could be hiding some significant features

Console reveals are tricky to manage. On the one hand, major corporations want to build support for features and capabilities to excite customers and developers. On the other, tipping your hand too early can give your competitors a leg up on beating you. Nintendo is particularly vulnerable in this regard — while the company is trying to build support for fundamentally new approaches to gaming, it needs to woo customers that might otherwise be looking to hardware from Sony or Microsoft.

For more than a decade, Nintendo has focused on offering different approaches to gaming with devices like the handheld DS and 3DS, the motion controllers on the Wii, and the Wii U’s gamepad. Polygon has written an in-depth description of the capabilities of Nintendo’s Switch as described in various patent filings. Patent filings don’t necessarily guarantee certain capabilities will come to the Switch. But the fact that Nintendo has described a controller with a wide range of features improves the chances that we’ll see this hardware in shipping devices.

The patents describe a device that can project a light field from one side and measure how many fingers the user is holding up, steer a car, detect objects held in the user’s hand, throw a virtual baseball (pictured above), or play a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. It’s not clear if the Switch as it exists today actually includes these capabilities, but Nintendo is clearly trying to think outside the box on this one.

Nintendo faces three problems with the Switch. First, there’s the question of battery life. Patents on the Switch describe a device with “a gyroscope, GPS, touchscreen, compass, motion tracking, image recognition and the ability to project images onto a flat surface or hand,” as Polygon details. That’s a complex suite of capabilities, many of which put significant demands on the battery. Even if Nintendo built the device on cutting-edge 14nm technology, battery life is going to be a challenge — especially if the Switch’s estimated 6.5-inch display is a high-resolution panel. Hopefully they didn’t — a 6.5-inch panel with a 1366×768 display packs 241 pixels per inch and becomes Retina-class at just 14 inches away. Higher-resolution screens mean less battery life and lower frame rates in games. In a handheld, that can be a significant problem.

The second problem Nintendo will need to solve, regardless of the Switch’s ultimate feature set, is building a device that developers can practically take advantage of. The motion controls on the Wii were gimmicky, but that gimmick sold tens of millions of systems. The Wii U’s gamepad, in contrast, never moved hardware — partly because it was limited to a single user and difficult to take advantage of. Putting data on the gamepad and the TV at the same time forced the player to constantly switch their attention back and forth between two displays. It was also hard to use in multiplayer, unless your game had a specific asymmetric scenario that let one player make good use of the gamepad while the other players used Wii-style controllers.

Nintendo Switch Console

The third problem Nintendo has to solve is how to price and sell the platform. One reason the Wii sold so well relative to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is that it was easily the cheapest system on the market. While the Wii was only $50 cheaper than the Xbox 360 Core, it didn’t require an HDTV — and you could literally buy two Wii’s for the price of one PS3. Today, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 can be found for $250 and $300, respectively.

Nintendo wants to make the ability to pick the system up and take it with you on the go a key component of its capability. But to make that work, it’ll need to show the platform has features the PS4 and Xbox One lack. Online connectivity and gaming has never been a Nintendo strong point and the demos shown to date show people playing the Switch together, not competing remotely. It’ll take more than strong local multiplayer to pull in fans for the new system. If Nintendo doesn’t show a truly compelling games library, it may not be enough to win fans with the Xbox One Scorpio launching next holiday season and the PS4 Pro already in-market.

As for how good the graphics will be on the whole, I think we can safely assume the NX will at least match the Wii U’s visuals at drastically reduced power consumption. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Switch can beat the Wii U, but much will depend on what process node Nintendo uses for the Switch and whether the dock offers additional cooling to help the tablet hit higher frame rates. Tablets tend to be limited to 10-15W of power (15W would be “burst” mode). There’s very little chance the Switch will be able to match the PS4 or Xbox One — right now, those platforms draw over 120W while gaming, and 14nm technology simply isn’t enough of an improvement over 28nm to cut power consumption by a factor of 10. The Wii U draws much less power and is currently built on 40/45nm tech, which is why I think the Switch can probably match or somewhat exceed it.

The big question is this: Did Nintendo focus on delivering a hybrid platform that “just plays games” and plays them well, the route Sony took with the PS4? Or did it try to recapture some of the Wii’s glory by reinventing gameplay? The second path is riskier, but could pay huge dividends if Nintendo pulls it off.

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