Nintendo Labo’s VR future isn’t about the screen

Tsubasa Sakaguchi, Director and Software Lead for Nintendo Labo, with his latest creations.


Nintendo

In a hotel opposite Central Park, my 10-year-old son Alex and I are sitting in a room full of cardboard, and the man who dreamed it all up is in the middle of it. Nintendo invited both me and my son to interview Tsubasa Sakaguchi, the Director and Software Lead for Nintendo Labo, including the just-released Labo VR Kit. 

The mercurial cardboard construction games for Nintendo Switch blend papercraft and programming to make seemingly impossible magic objects. Since Labo’s surprising debut last year, Nintendo has created four different Labo kits, ranging from a robot backpack to a vehicle kit to the most recent VR-focused kit, which comes with its own goggles that the Switch can slot into.

But what comes next? What does it mean? I came up with questions, and Alex did too. After he helped me review Nintendo Labo and Labo VR Kit, Nintendo invited him to interview Sakaguchi as well, so I brought him along for his first interview experience. I wrote up my own questions, and he wrote up his. These are the things we asked, and what we learned.

VR was always part of the plan

Even though the Labo VR Kit was the fourth version of Labo, Sakaguchi insists it was always there from the get-go. “We actually had it all planned out from the very beginning … even in the [original] announcement video, if you look at it, everything but the VR goggles is included.”

To Nintendo, the innovative part of Labo VR isn’t the screen, it’s the inputs. “For VR itself, there was already research happening at Nintendo,” Sakaguchi says. “We thought combining it with a unique controller would make a product that is like none other … creating an input, as well as physical feedback, the elasticity of the rubber band or the wind that you feel. It was kind of like climbing a mountain with other team members … we knew where the goal was at the top of the mountain, but we didn’t know how to get there. It was trial and error.”

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Sakaguchi remembers some of the challenges, like the included Wind Pedal that creates breezes in some of the VR Labo games. “We knew that we wanted to create wind, but we didn’t know how. So we had something that resembled a fan. Or we had a little propeller on top of our head to create the wind … at the very end, it turned into this pedal.”

As for why the particular weird Elephant, Bird, Pedal, Blaster and Camera creations in the first VR Kit, Sakaguchi says some ideas happened very early on. “The fishing rod [from the first Labo Variety Kit] and the elephant [from Labo VR Kit], I actually came up with those two prototypes on the same day.” The inputs are, basically, explorations of input and feedback. “By using the IR camera on Joy-Con controllers, and then the IR tape on the elephant, the Toy-Con itself, we realized that we could do 3D tracking. The physical feedback of the elephant nose, as well as being able to draw and create things in a 360 space, we thought would be a unique experience.”

Some of Labo’s VR ideas go all the way back to the Wii U, and NintendoLand, for which Sakaguchi was the art director. My son realized that the Labo VR’s Blaster game reminded him of NintendoLand’s Metroid Blast game, which used the GamePad as a movable screen that could see the world like a 2D version of VR. “To develop Nintendo Labo, we also include what Nintendo has developed, and we always try to incorporate that into the new software. You are very spot on.”

family-sakaguchi-labo-vr

Me, Sakaguchi, and my son Alex.


Nintendo

Board games, magic and what comes next?

I tried to ask Sakaguchi about what other ideas might be lurking for Labo, but he keeps that information secret. However, when asked about possibilities for Labo with board games or even magic kits — Nintendo has a long history of making magic accessories and playing cards — he smiled.

“That’s actually a really interesting point that you brought up. One of the team members has magic as a hobby, and he actually created a magic game using Toy Con VR. So the trick was, whatever card that you drew, the number would appear. But I have no idea how the mechanics work, because he never told me.”

Sakaguchi has also seen some board game ideas: “There was one prototype where we had a camera beaming from the bottom of a glass table, and having IR tape on the bottom of a pawn, so whenever you moved your pawn on the board game, the IR camera would recognize that.”

So what comes next? “Something that you feel like you’ve known and something that is new, that point that overlaps, that’s what we’re always seeking. But because every day everything evolves and everything changes, that overlap changes. I definitely have things in my head, little new ideas, but if I mention it right now, somebody might steal it.”

Sakaguchi looks at my son, and laughs.

Alex’s other questions to Sakaguchi follow below, along with his answers.

Q: Do you ever think Labo will be used in education?
That was actually something we didn’t really think about when we were making Nintendo Labo. Our main focus is to create an entertainment. But in some of the schools in the United States, Nintendo Labo is already used. When I hear about things like that, I’m pleasantly surprised.

Why did you decide to make Labo?
The first inspiration was these two Joy-Cons. I decided I wanted to make something that was unique, but something that was easy for people to understand.

So we tested out ways of using these two Joy-Con controllers, like putting the two Joy-Con controllers in a motorcycle handlebar, or in a fishing rod, or putting it on the head and the body for a robot. I went to a DIY store and got a bunch of supplies, and then created a prototype to figure out how this attachment would work.

Do you remember that there is a weight inside the robot backpack? When we first created the prototype, it was actually an energy drink inside, instead of a weight.

Why did you make Labo out of cardboard?
I briefly touched on this earlier, but we were really having fun with trial and error. We came to the conclusion that cardboard was the best material to customize things, or to draw and paint on. And then another thing was, to match those two together, something that feels very analog like cardboard, and high tech like Joy-Con controllers, made a lot of people surprised. Like, how did that work? We thought that was really fun, too.

We wanted to bring joy to people of all ages, and so we thought cardboard would be a good material to do that.

If I make something in the future, I want to make sure Alex interviews me.

labo-sakaguchi

Sakaguchi and Labo VR goggles.


Scott Stein/Techhnews

Why not bendable plastic, to be more sturdy?
Although it’s cardboard, we test it. With the Blaster, we shot it thousands and thousands of times. And then we also put it in a room that’s super humid to make sure that it doesn’t get wrinkly. So it is cardboard, but it’s actually really sturdy. You’ll be surprised at how strong this material could be. Also, I have this idea of, “nothing will last forever.” But we explain the mechanics of Labo and Toy-Con in-depth, so if you or anybody wants to do any fixing, then you’ll be able to do that with other materials. Your dad’s tablet, if it breaks, they won’t really tell you how you can fix it, but we make sure that everybody knows how to fix everything that’s in all the Toy-Cons. I think you’ll be able to do it.

How did you make the vibrations in the first Labo’s RC car work?
You know when you have your phone on the table and you have it set to vibrate, and sometimes it’ll vibrate off the table? Because we have two Joy-Con controllers, we don’t have to just go straight, we can also make it turn. During the prototype, we actually had a toothbrush glued to it. Of course, we figured we probably couldn’t include a toothbrush in a product, so we had to come up with ideas of how we could make it move with cardboard.

I also saw a Japanese user create an RC car with a tire that’s almost like an oil barrel that moves around. And one of our team members actually came up with an idea of, if you put a toothbrush on the bottom of a Joy-Con, and then put it on a kind of a tube surface, like a pillar, then the Joy-Con starts spinning around. We discovered that, just like about a week before I left Japan. Do you know how the steam engine trains work, where basically it converts an up-down movement to the wheels spinning. This developer came up with a reverse logic where we can create an up-down movement from a circular movement, so she created a character that just kind of moves up and down, from that movement. I thought about bringing it, but I couldn’t fit it in my suitcase.

My friend had a question he really wanted to ask: Do you think there will be a Splatoon 3?
(Laughs) Top secret. But please let your friend know, thank you for enjoying Splatoon so much.

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