Disorientator on the NeoGAF forums has uncovered a patent that Nintendo filed today for a handheld device with a free-form display. Drawings included with the patent show a controller (or possibly an entire handheld) that features a touch screen across the entire front of it. Two holes are on each side of the panel, allowing for analog sticks to pop up through them.
It appears, at least in these early mockups (which I want to remind you are often very rudimentary and not necessarily representative of a final product), that there are no face buttons like a traditional controller would have. Instead, since the entire top of the controller is a touch screen, each game will have its own placement of virtual buttons. Some of the examples shown remind me of the UI that’s typically on-screen in games like Zelda, where it instructs which button to hit to use a specific item. Here you’d just tap the on-screen button to perform the same function.
Again, we don’t know for sure that Nintendo will even use this patent, as companies often file patents for ideas that never materialize. However, there was a rumor at the beginning of the year that Nintendo was going to utilize Sharp’s new free-form display technology, which allows for the LCD screen to take any shape or form instead of the traditional rectangle. This oval shaped screen definitely feeds into that rumor from earlier in the year, leading a little credence that perhaps this is indeed a real product. Add to the fact that the NX could very well launch in 2016 and this might be our first hint at what to expect from the new system.
A couple of other details can be gleaned from the patent as well. First up, it mentions that the display panel can allow stereoscopic 3D with the naked eyes, so perhaps Nintendo isn’t giving up on the 3DS technology just yet. The touchscreen could also be an electrostatic capacitance system or resistance film (think iPad versus current 3DS and Wii U touch panels). The controller, or indeed entire handheld device, as shown and explained has a total of four physical inputs: 2 analog sticks and 2 shoulder buttons. The rest of the buttons would appear on the screen if needed. A card slot on top of the device is also present, which Nintendo mentions can be used for a game cartridge, SD card, or SIM card functionality. Also included is a built-in speaker, but curiously a headphone jack isn’t listed as of yet.
It appears that Nintendo sees the need for reducing the number of buttons to keep the form factor manageable:
In a common game apparatus, a display panel is provided between one or more operation buttons to be operated by the left hand and one or more operation buttons to be operated by the right hand on the surface (front) of the housing.
Accordingly, if it is intended to miniaturize a game apparatus, it is necessary to reduce the number of the operation buttons, to make a size of the operation buttons small, or to make a size of the display panel small. On the other hand, a game apparatus becomes large if it is intended to enlarge a size of the display panel.
Therefore, this embodiment provides a new information processing apparatus by enlarging the size of the display panel while not enlarging the apparatus.
My first impressions of this patent are mixed. Obviously we don’t yet know important details, haven’t seen the real thing in person, and indeed haven’t been shown software that makes use of the unique features of this would-be device. However, assuming for a moment that this is all true and that the NX is utilizing this technology, I really like the idea of having a free-form panel. It will allow for a more comfortable gaming experience than what is found with the existing Wii U GamePad. However, I do not like the idea of having virtual buttons on the face of the controller, unless there’s some type of haptic feedback or other innovation that can create a tactile experience. I don’t want to look down to make sure my thumbs are on the correct buttons. I’m also concerned that portions of the screen will be obscured by my hands, and that makes me wonder if the free-form display is really needed.
No matter what, these types of finds are always fascinating to read about and offer up some fun speculation. Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima already mentioned earlier in an interview with Time that the NX will offer up new game play experiences and it won’t just follow in the footsteps of the Wii U and 3DS. Perhaps this is a prelude of what we can expect to see next year when Nintendo finally unveils the NX.
Download a PDF of the Nintendo Patent.