Thoughts on StreetPass

About a month ago, after some amount of umming and ahhing, I bought a Nintendo 2DS.

I’d been interested in picking one up for a while, and the promise of price-drops around Black Friday had me checking every now and then. I’m not a massive gamer, but there are a handful of games on the system that looked appealing to me.

article-2412249-1ba413ba000005dc-179_468x385The 2DS is the cheaper version of the 3DS. For one thing it, obviously, omits the 3D screen. This wasn’t a huge concern to me. It also has a simple, flat construction rather than the 3DS’ hinged, folding clamshell approach. This makes the 2DS less neat and pocketable, but still quite portable.

(Trivia: the flat construction means that although the 2DS appears to have two separate screens, it’s actually one big slab under the plastic shell to save money. Clever!)

I’ll talk about the games another time – I’m dozens of hours into Weeaboo Junction alone – but today I’m thinking about one of the system’s core functions: StreetPass.

StreetPass

2DS and 3DS devices all have WiFi built in. This lets the user download games, play online multiplayer, and browse the web (to some degree). So far, so ordinary for a games console these days.

But 2DSes and 3DSes can also talk to eachother, primarily for local multiplayer, but also for StreetPass functionality. Contrary to most device-to-device communications, StreetPass actually allows devices to talk without any input from the users.

relay-pointsAs long as a 2DS or 3DS is on standby/in sleep mode, it is constantly seeking other devices to talk to. And when it finds one, it will perform a sort of ‘handshake’ with the other device. Later, both users will see a green LED notification light on the device, and they’ll have any one of a number of things to check/play with.

Obviously, this kind of exchange only happens when two devices are in close proximity, so it’s more likely in busier places, like cities and public transport hubs. Therefore, it can be hugely beneficial to take your 2DS anywhere you go, leaving it in standby mode, just on the off-chance you pass another user.

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It me.

This quite unique system function was one of the things that attracted me to the console. I rather like the idea of pseudo-random exchanges with strangers within the walled garden of Nintendo’s network and games.

“But Paul!” you cry.

“Don’t you know the 3DS was first launched six years ago?! Just how many users do you think there will be still bumbling around on the streets of London?”

Fair point.

My experiences with StreetPass have been… Well, pretty much as I’d expected. I’ve had a handful of exchanges so far, usually near busier transport interchanges, like Golders Green, Euston station, and other busy trains/stations I’ve passed through recently.

But frequenting locations such as these is by no means a dead cert in terms of receiving StreetPasses. I’ve carried my 2DS in my bag when visiting Euston station, Oxford Street, etc, and had no ‘hits’. I tell myself that other factors may be at play – too many other devices interfering with WiFi reception, or the limited range of each device. But I really think it’s just down to a low install base. Which, in a way, makes each StreetPass all the sweeter.

The other way to get StreetPass hits is via a Nintendo Zone.

These are public WiFi hotspots and there used to be loads in the UK, but now it appears to be limited to branches of GAME, the videogame retailer. Above, left, shows the remaining Nintendo Zones within the M25, and, right, the map shows the European countries still with Nintendo Zones. Source.

Users who StreetPass within a Nintendo Zone get the data from, I believe, the last six users to also do the same. This makes it a good way to bulk up your StreetPass hits without actually needing to be in proximity with the other users. The clever bit is, much like an actual StreetPass, you don’t need to do anything to connect to a Nintendo Zone. It just works when you’re in range. I tested this out recently by stuffing my 2DS into my running backpack and passing my nearest branch of GAME. It worked perfectly, and gave the expected boost to my StreetPass hit count.

So what do you get when you StreetPass with someone? It depends.

The main port of call is a sort-of game called Mii Plaza, where other users’ Miis will be gathered. Miis are Nintendo’s weird bobble-headed avatars which you can tweak to vaguely resemble you or whomever you please. The associated metadata is limited: your birthday (DD/MM only), the latest 3DS game you’ve been playing, and a few other child-friendly tidbits.

You’re quite limited in what data you can include in the free text fields. It would be a stretch, even, to hack your contact details into it. And that’s sort of the point. Nintendo intentionally made this system pseudo-anonymous. They have a two-way handshake friend code system for real-life buddies, but StreetPass is just kind of vague. Miis, as avatars, are kind of ageless. It’s hard to tell if you’ve StreetPassed with a ten-year-old or a fifty-year-old.

Anyway, in Mii Plaza there are a handful of cute mini-games, and you also see a frankly horrifying army of all the Miis you’ve ‘met’ recently, lined up and grinning. But Mii Plaza is pre-installed and is just one bit of 3DS software that makes use of StreetPass.

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Other games for the system such as Mario Kart 7 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf can trade data with other users via StreetPass, including fastest lap times in the former and sharing home interior designs with the latter. There are a ton of other examples.

There’s even a music player built into the 2DS/3DS, and if you add some tracks to your favourites, StreetPass will work a bit of Last.FM-style magic and notify you if you share any favourite tracks with other users.

Even with my limited experiences with StreetPass, I’ve had a number of quite charming ‘interactions’ (these are only ever after the fact, never real-time) with other users, particularly seeing their Animal Crossing homes.

The age of the system and the lack of remaining Nintendo Zones means the opportunities to StreetPass are getting fewer and fewer. I wish there were still more Zones available – I think they also used to use the ubiquitous ‘The Cloud’ WiFi hotspots, which would’ve really boosted your chances. But still, it’s a fun little bonus feature of the system which adds some charm and some unexpected surprises now and then.

The fact that StreetPass isn’t coming to the Nintendo Switch means I guess its days are numbered. Hopefully the 2DS/3DS system will live on alongside the Switch, as the new system isn’t truly portable – or certainly not pocketable – and I believe Nintendo has indicated that the two platforms will co-exist for the time being.

Even if StreetPass ceased to exist tomorrow, the vast library of games for the 3DS, not to mention DS and Virtual Console titles, means I will have plenty to keep me going for a while yet.

Postscript

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a closed system run by someone like Nintendo, the technology behind StreetPass is proving hard to research. Online, in the marketing bumf, you’ll find real-world scenarios and in-game features, rather than frequencies, power consumption transmission ranges, amount and format of data transmitted or time needed for a successful StreetPass.

Some of these factors are applicable to the WiFi standard generally. But other factors remain a bit of a mystery. And perhaps that’s best. Certainly it makes sense to keep it simple for the purposes of a mainstream, predominantly kid-friendly console.

The more information a company releases on functions like this, the more likely it is to be hacked or gamed. There are, or were, ways to create your own bootleg Nintendo Zones with a hacked router, which intrigues me greatly. But I also like that it all just works for the average user.

Anyway, the whole concept has got me thinking about near field communications (NFC), local WiFi and Bluetooth handshakes and beacons, mesh networks, and other possibilities with similar technologies.

I had some reckons on StreetPass in general, and I have further reckons on the wider concept of device-to-device communications and other potential applications. Watch this space.

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