Hackers have uncovered and tested a screen-splitting “VR Mode” that has been buried in the Switch’s system-level firmware for over a year. The discovery suggests that Nintendo at least toyed with the idea that the tablet system could serve as a stereoscopic display for a virtual reality headset.
Switch hackers first discovered and documented references to a “VrMode” in the Switch OS’ Applet Manager services back in December when analyzing the June 2017 release of version 3.0.0 of the system’s firmware. But the community doesn’t seem to have done much testing of the internal functions “IsVrModeEnabled” and “SetVrModeEnabled” at the time.
That changed shortly after Switch modder OatmealDome publicly noted one of the VR functions earlier this month, rhetorically asking, “has anyone actually tried calling it?” Fellow hacker random0666 responded with a short Twitter video (and an even shorter follow-up) showing the results of an extremely simple homebrew testing app that activates the system’s VrMode functions.
As you can see in those video links, using those functions to enable the Switch’s VR mode splits the screen vertically into two identical half-sized images, in much the way other VR displays split an LCD screen to create a stereoscopic 3D effect. System-level UI elements appear on both side of the screen when the mode is enabled, and the French text shown in the test can be roughly translated to “Please move the console away from your face and click the close button.”
The location of the functions in the Switch firmware suggest they’re part of Nintendo’s own Switch code and not generic functions included in other Nvidia Tegra-based hardware.
Could Switch VR work?
The presence and functionality of the Switch system software’s “VrMode” code strongly suggests Nintendo was testing some sort VR support for the Switch at some point in the recent past. The discovery also adds a bit more fodder to a 2016 Nintendo patent that showed a very Switch-like tablet being inserted into a head-mounted VR holster.
While Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima said in early 2016 that the company was “looking into” virtual reality, Nintendo executives have shown relatively tepid interest in hopping on the VR bandwagon over the years.
Despite the discovery of this VrMode code (and previous hacked-together proof-of-concept tests from individual Switch owners), it’s hard to imagine the Switch’s large form factor, 720p resolution screen, and relatively low-end gyroscope would lead to a very robust VR experience. That said, some industry watchers continue to speculate about a potential PS4 Pro/Xbox One X-style mid-generation hardware update for the Switch, which could provide the extra horsepower needed to enable passable virtual reality on the platform (Nintendo has not even hinted at any such plans, though).
Regardless, the Switch’s VrMode functions are still buried in current versions of the Switch firmware, waiting for homebrew or even third-party developers to test it out in an actual piece of software, if they wish. After you guys are done creating new Super Mario Odyssey levels, we’d love to see some more experiments on this score.