A few weeks ago I got to visit Neoteric and check out the Nintendo Wii that he has been obsessing over... It was immediately obvious to me why Cartman had so much trouble waiting for the Wii to be released that he decided to cryonically freeze himself.
The Wii is simply fun, even in spite of the crude graphics. The act of actually performing the action the game simulates has a huge impact on your emotional reaction to the activity. I bowled almost exactly as poorly as I do in a real bowling alley, and I haven't had more fun playing tennis on a computer since the wheel controllers on the Atari 2600. I immediately decided that I had to have one for Christmas. I told my family. Unfortunately, several million kids across the country had the exact same revelation at the exact same time, and apparently Nintendo only made about 400,000 of them for post release North American sales during the holiday season, so enter the crazy feeding frenzy. I won't be getting a Wii this year.
Its worth pondering whether this is a good thing. One of the reasons that the Wii makes sense is its $250 price point. I'm not enough of a gamer to drop $600 on a next gen system. I've always waited a few years for prices to go down. However, the main advantage of the Wii is the controller, which could be duplicated on one of the more advanced systems. One of my roommates owns an X-Box 360. The graphics are immersive in their own right. Oblivion is possibly worth the price of admission if you are a technologist. You walk around in this world and every leaf on every tree and every blade of grass is individually drawn and independently moving with the wind. The world is so detailed and engrossing its like reading Tolkien.
When I imagine combining the two it strikes me that the fidelity of the Wii controller might not be up to the standards of the more advanced systems. A number of my friends have been scratching their heads about the use of IR as well as two kinds of Accelerometers. This article at Ars explains the situation. The accelerometers simply aren't accurate enough to handle drift, so the IR triangulation is also needed to gain context for pointing activities. They can capture motion, but they can't capture absolute positioning or absolute orientation.
That fact hasn't stopped people from over reacting and playing the games as if they were real. The fact is that none of these games require the kind of motion that might result in breaking something. A simple flick of the wrist is all thats required to play tennis, for example. But why?
One of the most natural things you could imagine doing with this controller is fencing. However, reading reviews of several fencing implementations on the Wii it seems as though there are a handful of actions that your on screen character is really capable of. The Wii is merely a substitute for things that could be expressed with a traditional controller. Hold down "A" and hit the upper left of the control pad becomes swing the controller high toward the TV. I'm not sure if this is due to a limitation of the hardware, or of the imaginations of the game developers. To be sure, games developed with this controller in mind are apt to be far more interesting than ones in which various combinations of buttons are simply translated into Wii actions. But I don't understand why the sword doesn't simply do exactly what the Wii controller does. One possible explanation is that this might encourage the sort of behavior that people are unwilling to take responsibility for anymore.
In theory, I would never find out, as Nintendo doesn't let just anybody under the hood of their systems. However, there is hope. The second coolest controller Nintendo ever released was the Power Glove. In high school I had one hooked up to my PC. A program called Rend386 provided a 3D environment, in which a text file polygon description of a hand was rendered and perfectly followed the actions of my real hand in the glove. There was a high resolution mode in the glove that Rend386 could access but Nintendo didn't actually use with their games.
Perhaps the Wii has a similar mode, and thanks to HackaDay I'm sure I'll know as soon as someone finds it. Perhaps the fencing game I really want to play on the Wii I'll actually play on a PC with a bunch of code written by people who can't afford the Nintendo Seal of Quality and are smart enough to use the tool in an environment where no one is going to get hurt or sued.
But in any event, the race is on to use MEMS technology to create more immersive controllers for everyone. Nintendo has finally demonstrated that VR is not a gimmick. And, they might even win the next gen console wars. When I was a teenager I got an Atari Lynx, which was a really powerful portable system with great graphics and complex games. Everyone else got a Game Boy. The Game Boy was terrible in comparison, but it was way, way more popular. The reason, ultimately, boiled down to price.