Nintendo has been eyeing virtual reality for longer than you realize.
You wouldn’t have known it back in Jan. 2018 when the first cardboard gaming kit was announced, but work was happening behind the scenes. It was far enough along even then to make a cameo appearance in that first reveal.
“When we first came up with the concept of Labo, we realized that we can incorporate VR experiences into it,” Labo Director and Software Lead Tsubasa Sakaguchi said through a translator during a recent interview.
“[It] was part of the theme from the earlier stages. As you can see from the release announcement video, the VR Toy-Cons are actually included in that announcement video.”
Sure enough, if you look closely toward the end of the video, the Labo VR Kit cameos are unmistakable. There, at the two-minute mark, you can see brief flashes of the Bird, the Camera, the Wind Pedal, and the Blaster. There’s even a brief, easy-to-miss glimpse at the controller end of the Elephant Toy-Con’s trunk.
This was more than a year before Labo VR Kit was even announced, mind you. But the examples that flash by in the announcement trailer don’t look all that different from their final retail versions, if they differ at all. All that’s missing is the big giveaway: the goggles.
“We made sure to hide the VR googles, so you’ll only see the tip of the Blaster or the other parts of the Toy-Cons,” Sakaguchi said. Still, the idea was there; the work was well underway.
Although he wouldn’t say how long Nintendo has been looking at the modern era of VR, work on the Labo VR Kit grew out of the company’s ongoing tech research efforts. It’s a reminder that Nintendo is keenly aware of the market even if it’s not always engaged in the technological arms race that has defined the so-called “console wars” of the past.
“[W]e do continuous research of new technology, but for Labo, we wanted to create something new and innovative,” Sakaguchi said. He added that the company is always looking for “that tiny little overlap” between the innovative and the familiar — and in many ways, Labo broadly embodies that overlap.
Is it a toy or a game? A construction kit or coding toolbox? You’re folding cardboard to make familiar objects, like a piano or a steering wheel, and then using those creations to interact with the software. But there’s also Toy-Con Garage (and Labo VR Kit’s Toy-Con Garage VR), which lets you rewrite the rules of how any Labo creation works or even make your own.
It’s daunting at first when you jump into a Garage workspace, but the idea is to use it as a creative playspace. “I think as users we tend to focus more on very complex programming,” Sakaguchi said, adding, “but we want everybody to understand you can start off easy and still create a really exciting experience.”
“For Labo, we wanted to create something new and innovative.”
He offers an example: A Nintendo colleague’s 5-year-old daughter went through the whole process of building each Toy-Con and getting the hang of how it all works. Then she came up with a simple fire-making “game” using nothing more than a standard Switch Joy-Con’s motion sensors.
If you place the Joy-Con between two hands and rub them back and forth as if the Joy-Con is a stick, it made the Switch’s screen flash. She then cut out a little fire silhouette that could wrap around the screen, giving the impression that the flashes of light reflected your efforts to start a virtual fire.
“I always think that you can just create something that is very simple and impressive,” Sakaguchi said. And while the fire-making game might not seem instantly impressive to you, the adult reading this interview, it’s the act of creation that matters — and the ability to share it with family and friends.
The same principle applies with Toy-Con Garage VR. This is still a new technology for most people. Creating something and that you can then show off to someone you know taps into the same sense of excitement that kids feel when they show off the architectural wonders they create out of building blocks.
“We think that what is important is to be able to see what you’ve just created come to life,” Sakaguchi said. “As well as to get feedback from your friends and family, just watching them be impressed and surprised at what you created.”
To punctuate that point, Sakaguchi paused our interview briefly to fiddle around in Toy-Con Garage VR. After a couple minutes, he handed me the goggles and the Wind Pedal. Peering through, I saw a little green robot staring back at me. When I pressed the pedal, the robot jumped up high, forcing me to crane my neck upward if I wanted to keep it in my field of view.
Sakaguchi made that right there in front of me. It’s a very simple creation, consisting of just a couple commands. But there’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of fiddling around with this toolbox and coming up with something that simply works.
You don’t need to build some massive, complicated game in Garage to impress the people in your circle. That’s part of the reason why the Labo VR Kit’s goggles have no headstrap — the act of sharing something you’ve just seen or created is so much more instantaneous when you don’t have to fumble around with straps.
“We want everybody to understand you can start off easy and still create a really exciting experience.”
“We focused on local sharing, and that was because we wanted that trial-and-error of looking at your friends or family’s feedback on what you’ve created and then creating something that’s even better,” Sakaguchi said.
There’s another reason there’s no headstrap, as well: comfort. Not everyone takes to such a visually immersive experience in quite the same way. Sakaguchi and his team wanted to be sure that “if the person wanted to just get out of the VR, they could at any given time.”
While it would be nice to see Labo someday evolve to the point that users can share their Garage creations across a wider online community, that hasn’t happened yet. Labo VR Kit will, however, be growing as an experience now that its out.
Sakaguchi didn’t get into the specifics, but he did say that there are expansion plans for VR Plaza, a minigame-packed section of the Labo VR Kit in which all of the experiences were built in Toy-Con Garage VR.
“Although it’s not sharing with your friends, we wanted to share something with our users. So we have an update in the future coming to share new VR Plaza content with the users,” he said. “That’s all I can say for now.”