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Nintendo DS: more communicator than console?

Instant messaging, VoIP potential revealed

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Nintendo yesterday launched its Nintendo DS handheld console, as anticipated. But while many of the details had already been revealed, the videogame pioneer did manage to pull a few surprises out of the bag.

Nintendo DS

First up, the DS will offer a voice recognition capability, allowing Nintendo to forecast a future where in-game avatars are literally told where to go and what to do. Combine that facility with the DS' wireless capability, we wonder if Nintendo has its eye on broader voice applications, in particular Voice over IP (VoIP).

Indeed, Nintendo's discussion of the unit's power management system notes that "if the user receives a message from a friend or user nearby, DS activates itself from Standby mode" (our emphasis). So there's clearly some kind of instant messaging facility built into the device - again, it looks like Nintendo is thinking beyond the console to a more general youth-oriented communications device.

Originally thought to be a Bluetooth device, the DS will actually use Wi-Fi, the better to compete with the Sony PlayStation Portable, which was also unveiled yesterday. Nintendo said the console will be able to link up to 15 others within a 30ft radius.

In addition to 802.11, the DS will use "Nintendo's proprietary communications protocol", which in addition to yielding "low battery consumption" has presumably been optimised for LAN gaming. It also supports the (presumably secure) transfer of game code from one device to another, so that not every handheld user needs to have bought the game on a card. This is a very interesting tactic, which - if developers support it - not only removes a key barrier to players making the most of WLAN gaming, but serves a demo service for the full game.

Enjoyed the multi-player version? Then go out and buy the single-player version - and get access to all the multi-player levels too.

PC game vendors have been doing this kind of thing for year, of course, but it's interesting to see the technique transfer to the console world - doubly so, given the way it also leverages the network for machine-to-machine downloads. GBA users can do this already via a cable, but the DS expands the process considerably.

Wi-Fi will come into play when the user wants to connect to a standard WLAN or the Internet, and Nintendo hinted at support for massively multiplayer games host on the Net.

Nintendo also revisited the DS components that were known before the launch: the twin backlit 3in LCD display panels, the lower one of the two being touch-sensitive. Nintendo noted its "PDA-like capabilities", again perhaps signalling broader roles for the machine than gaming. Both screens can display 3D imagery using Nintendo's latest graphics engine. "Games will run at 60 frames per second, and allow details like fog effects and cel shading," the company said.

The DS supports 16-channel sound, and Nintendo confirmed the use of two ARM-based processors in the device, one an ARM 9 design the other an ARM 7. The handheld is powered by a rechargeable battery.

DS games will ship on a new, compact 1Gb cartridge format, but there's a second slot in the unit to cope with older GameBoy Advance cartridges. Nintendo said it had signed over 100 developers to create titles for the new console.

Which may or may not be branded the DS. Nintendo said: "The system's official name, price and launch line-up will be announced at a later date." ®

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