Nintendo Labo VR kit review: The Switch makes virtual m…

Nintendo Labo VR kit review: The Switch makes virtual m...
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Nintendo Labo VR.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nintendo's late entry to the world of VR is finally here. Yes, it's made of cardboard. Yes, it's weird. But the ideas inside are probably unlike anything else you've tried before.

It's impossible not to think of Google Cardboard when putting together Nintendo's Labo VR Kit construction set, which I did over the last week with my 10- and 6-year-old kids. Nintendo Labo is a series of ingenious, bonkers, folding hackable game-art-programming experiences for the Nintendo Switch, and they're entirely made of cardboard, rubber bands and plastic grommets.

In short, the Nintendo Labo VR Kit took Google Cardboard and mashed it together with the Switch to create a whole cardboard universe.

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Nintendo Labo VR, reviewed: a box of magic tricks



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Sure, Nintendo sat on the sidelines over the last three years while Sony, Oculus, Google, Samsung, HTC and others have made VR big and small. But the company has always been dabbling in immersive ideas. The Nintendo Wii from 2006 pioneered a wild motion controller, and its Nintendo 3DS has glasses-free 3D — and even AR. And hey, remember the Virtual Boy?

Because the Nintendo Switch is a convertible tablet that can transform into different forms, it lets Labo be a sort of low-stakes testing ground for how the Switch could be used in new ways. Labo VR represents the most practical experiment of all: What if the Switch powered a VR headset? Of course Labo VR has its limits. But the concept makes sense, and best of all, it works so well because Nintendo understood the limits enough to design around them.

Nintendo's had a history of making actual magic in the past, including a magic kit with playing cards for the Nintendo DS years ago. In a weird way, I realize now, that's exactly what Labo VR Kit is: a box of magic tricks, full of weird wonder.

Nintendo's $80 Labo VR kit costs a lot more than the nearly-free Google Cardboard, but it also makes six things: goggles, a camera, an elephant, a bird, a blaster and a foot pedal that creates wind. A step-down $40 kit just has the goggles and blaster, and it's a good starting point if you're not ready to take the full dive. You can buy the other parts later in $20 micropacks, adding up to the same overall cost.

So what's it like to put together VR, Nintendo-style? After spending days with my kids and I building and playing with it, I can say it's mostly really brilliant. But it's also flawed, and yes, it involves a ton of cardboard folding, which became really tedious. This is what happened.

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The Camera (lots of zooming and clicking).


Scott Stein/CNET

We made a camera

After putting together the goggles, which took about 30 minutes to an hour, we made the camera (another hour), which has a zoom lens. An under-the-sea game lets me look around, zoom in and take pictures of fish. My kids freaked out, and started screaming about sunfish, sharks and footballfish. It wasn't as scary to my 6-year-old as some more realistic undersea VR experiences on the Oculus Go he had watched before, though. There's a second game involving shooting pictures of a weird creature in a house (a reference to a thing that lived in a cardboard house in the first Labo kit), but we haven't gotten to that yet.

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This is a big blaster.


Scott Stein/CNET

We made a blaster gun

The blaster is a big cardboard bazooka you drop the goggles into, and it lets you look around and shoot cute blob aliens in a bunch of rail-based levels. “It's like that Metroid game in NintendoLand,” my 10-year-old notes. There's a lot of loading and shooting (the cardboard chamber springs loads and a rear button releases). It feels like an arcade game and the tracking sometimes makes me feel a little dizzy. I'm not wild about having my kids shooting things in games, but it passes the kid test to say the least.

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It's bird-o-vision.


Scott Stein/CNET

We made a duck and a weird elephant

Labo VR's other accessories range from gimmicky to brilliant. For instance, the bird (which looks like a duck that lets you look into its butt?) is cute, but all it does is flap its wings. The game you use it with is like Pilotwings for birds: You fly around an island, feed chicks and collect things. It's better when paired with the foot pedal, which blows actual wind via its giant cardboard fan and creates a breeze as you glide.

The elephant, which has a bendy rubber-banded trunk, is ingenious though. Reflective stickers on the “face” plus an infrared camera on one Joy-Con controller, add positional controller tracking that lets you reach out and grab things. This is similar to pieces in a kinetic ball-rolling puzzle game or doodling in 3D using an art app. Overall the game feels like a pared-down version of Google's VR app Tiltbrush. Fortunately, the games know the controller's limits and are laid out in a way that makes the most of the short “reach” of the elephant arm.

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The elephant is weird, but its reflective stickers and IR camera also make the controller a functional grabber for VR.


Sarah Tew/CNET

What happens to all these cardboard things now?

One of the first things you'll have to come to terms with is that, with Labo, you're making a lot of somewhat fragile cardboard novelty items. Your kids may break them and if they don't you'll need a lot of shelf space or a big box to store them. And if they're stored away, your kids will forget about them and do you really need more crap in your home? Labo isn't asking you to make sense of this. You're either in for the ride or you're not. Sorry.

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Some of the included mini-games don't even require VR, and they can all be played on the screen, 3D and goggle-free.


Sarah Tew/CNET

You could hack and create more, if you had the patience

There are a lot of little easter eggs buried in the Labo VR Kit. A Discover section teaches a bit about how VR and optics work, and a Toy-Con Garage enables coding just like other Labo kits (which in theory is nearly unlimited if you can understand the confusing layout of Garage's menus). Another game-tinkering tool (Toy-Con Garage VR) allows recustomizing or creating new mini arcade games to try out, so there's a lot to do. Nintendo includes 64 quick mini games to try, and they can all be reformatted and redesigned. This could be a kid's first introduction to basic VR game design.

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Building Labo with the step-by-step instructions takes a lot of time, but at least it's clearly explained.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Limitations? Of course

The Switch has a low 720p resolution screen so when it's used for VR the display's pixels are really large and slightly blurry. Its battery life is pretty short (under 3 hours) and its controllers aren't necessarily designed for VR, either, so while they're wireless and have great haptics, they're clumsy to use at times.

All the Labo VR creations are made to be used without any head straps, so you have to hold the bulky, heavy goggles-plus-Switch to your face, which gets really tiring for more than 5 minutes, and the display sometimes has a fair amount of lag, too. The Labo VR software encourages players to take a break every few minutes, and I agree. Then again, my kids both played for a long time at a stretch and wanted to keep going.

The Switch uses its own gyro and motion sensors to allow head turning (called 3DoF in VR circles), which means no leaning in or walking around. That's good news because it limits the possibility of injury and staying seated or standing is easier to do. But the motion controls need to be recalibrated sometimes, which requires you to lay down the Switch on a flat surface to recenter. This isn't ideal, and it's just another example of how the Switch isn't optimized for VR.

Some of the VR controls can get confusing too. The goggles have a top tap zone that lets you double-tap the cardboard to select things, much like Google Cardboard did with its single button. Tapping a little exposed part of the screen near the nose piece can exit out of apps, but it's not immediately obvious. The Joy-Con controllers need to be slipped into the Labo VR's elaborate cardboard accessories, and syncing them and removing them gets fiddly. Patient parents and older kids who like to tinker are the best bets for this.

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Google Cardboard (left), meet Nintendo Labo VR Kit (right). Cardboard led to Google Daydream. What will Labo VR lead to…?


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Could this be Nintendo's first step into VR, with more to come?

I asked my oldest son, who worked on Labo with me a year ago, to rate the experience with Labo VR. He said he loved it, but he noticed that the pixels were “a little too big.” Maybe a new Switch, he suggested, with smaller pixels and a new controller, could benefit better from a full VR headset?

Funnily enough, I was thinking the same thing. The Nintendo Switch is 2 years old. A new version with a better display and processor and controllers could handle VR in ways that are more convincing. After all, the upcoming Oculus Quest is doing exactly that in a standalone mobile game system.

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Would Nintendo pursue that idea? Perhaps. Super Mario Odyssey and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are getting extra updates that work with Labo VR. I haven't played those features yet, but I'd expect they're pretty limited (also, you would need to hold Labo VR to your face while playing, which again, is tiring).

But the real question remains if Labo VR is a sign of Nintendo readying itself for the next wave of VR hardware. The Switch isn't a perfect fit for VR. It's a dip-your-face-in-for-a-bit type of experience that feels more like a novelty set of 3D glasses than a fully immersive VR experience. But it works well enough to pass. It shows that Nintendo's wild ideas could apply to VR games.

Then again, maybe VR is best kept as an experiment, which is exactly what Labo VR is. Yes, it's a novelty, a weekend of folding and tinkering with a few surprises thrown in. But, we had a really great time doing it all, and my kids were entranced and loved every second of it (fighting over the VR goggles, fascinated by the games and worlds, and curious to know more). This is, after all, what Nintendo always does best: be weird and fun. Labo VR isn't perfect, and no, it's not your next killer VR headset. But it gave me a weekend I'll always remember. And I think my kids feel the same way.

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$48

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