Saturday, January 5, 2008

Nintendo Wii: Good but Not Too Good

Sales reports have consistently shown the Nintendo Wii to be leading the pack when it comes to current generation game consoles. Back when the Wii was just the conceptual "Revolution" I predicted and hoped that it would indeed revolutionize gaming with its user interface innovations. The Wii has been successful because it is good but not too good.

The most obvious interpretation of this statement involves the price/performance trade offs that console manufacturers face. While Sony and Microsoft chose to continue escalating the technical specifications of their hardware Nintendo took a middle ground approach. The Wii does HD but not 1080 resolution. It has a DVD drive but doesn't play movies (let alone Blu-ray or HD DVD). In all respects the system has less power than the competition, but by choosing lower hardware requirements Nintendo was able to deliver a more affordable, smaller console.

A less apparent application of good but not too good is an aspect of human nature that I believe will foretell near term advances in virtual reality (VR). On the commentary for one of the early CGI movies (it may have been Shrek, but I don't recall) the animators talk about a phenomenon whereby people started to dislike the characters if they became too close to real. It seems the human mind is happy to place itself in a state of suspended disbelief when what it is experiencing is clearly unbelievable. We don't watch a Roadrunner cartoon and complain that there is no way the coyote could survive that fall. The problem for movie makers occurred as animated characters started approaching reality. At that point people would look at them and know that something was "not right" but not necessarily be able to put their finger on it. The computer graphics had passed the threshold of being obviously fake but had not yet reached the point of being believable. They were too good for their own good and actually had to be made less realistic.

The same logic can be used with virtual reality and the Wii. Nobody would claim that waving around a remote control truly gives you the same experience as swinging a tennis racket at a ball or slicing a goblin with a sword. Yesterday I was reading about haptic interfaces. The Webopedia article states, "For example, in a virtual reality environment, a user can pick up a virtual tennis ball using a data glove. The computer senses the movement and moves the virtual ball on the display. However, because of the nature of a haptic interface, the user will feel the tennis ball in his hand through tactile sensations that the computer sends through the data glove, mimicking the feel of the tennis ball in the user's hand." This is certainly far above what the Wii's controller offers. Will this be the next generation of gaming? I don't think so, and the reason is that it defies the good but not too good philosophy. When games start to mimic tactile sensations it butts up against the "close to reality but just not right" barrier. I'm sure such a device would be interesting to try, but in order to lose ourselves in the experience of a game, just like with a movie, we either need to be in a clearly non-real environment or so totally immersed that it is difficult to distinguish what is and is not real.

It's been over a decade since Pixar introduced us to full length CGI animation with Toy Story. Movies are just now approaching the use of fully realistic human characters. While VR has also been in development for decades, the Wii gaming console is definitely the largest real world application of virtual reality concepts. Before the next level of immersive VR is achieved the industry will have to overcome the problem of being too close to reality without being close enough. In my opinion this will likely take the next ten years. In the meantime there is plenty of opportunity using the current technology for unbelievable games to be incredibly fun.

No comments: