5comments Beyond motion control
Posted Sat 15th May 2010 9:21pm by Dennis Scimeca
I attended a PlayStation Community meet-up this April at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts, the day before PAX East kicked off. The meet-up was to demonstrate the new Move motion-control system. I spoke to a few fellow members of the indie press and blogosphere, and the consensus was that Move felt like a gimmick. It was going to take the release of a “hardcore” title, which felt as good or better to play using the Move versus a traditional controller, to elevate the Move above gimmick to “awesome new peripheral.”
NATAL is, to be fair, the more inventive of the two upcoming motion control systems hitting the gaming world this Fall. It actually bears a resemblance to the sort of gesture-based computing that the movie Minority Report featured (and which has actually been developed into a fully-functional OS by one of the science advisors from that film). NATAL promises the ability to play games without use of a peripheral…but what if the players, themselves, became that peripheral?
Skinput is a new interface system being developed by Chris Harrison, a PhD student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon, and his colleagues Desney Tan and Dan Morris from Microsoft Research. The tap of a finger on skin, or subtle movements like pinches or muscle twitches, could translate into the trigger-pulls and button-pressing of tomorrow. A YouTube video demonstrates the potential of this new technology, including a researcher playing Guitar Hero...without a guitar.
Motion or skin-control systems operate under the assumption that all users are of normative physical functionality, which is to say without any sort of physical challenges. Though it was recently decided in United States law that video games do not constitute public accommodations which therefore require accessibility statutes to be adhered to, there are legitimate ethical grounds for allowing the differently-abled to play video games, and the technology used to accomplish this task may wind up carrying deeper ramifications for everyone’s control schemes. In fact, today's motion-control gaming systems depend greatly on the academic, accessibility research which has been taking place for decades.
Imagine controllers where blowing or quickly inhaling are functional input devices? Or where electrical signals produced by the brain are measured? Tara Lynn Tefertiller demonstrated several improvised game controllers which use these technologies at the 2010 Game Developer’s Conference this year. The International Game Developer's Association supports a Game Accessibility Special Interest Group whose wiki page is a treasure-trove of information on the technologies being developed to meet these specific challenges, including head tracker systems, audio-only control setups, and haptic interfaces.
Haptics are a robust field of study which involve the use of force-feedback, or the sense of touch, to convey data to the user. This technology has been in commerical use for over 60 years, but it is only recently that consumer versions of this technology applicable to gaming have been released, for example the Novint Falcon (pictured to the left) which can be used for almost every Valve FPS game currently on the market.
Whether or not a new control technology will be looked at for gaming are the cost of production and the efficiency of their use. This is why keeping an eye out for "hardcore" titles that make Move and NATAL preferential control setups is so important: it doesn't matter how much a new control scheme sounds like sci-fi, this will not be enough to dictate their wide adoption. The Nintendo Wii's motion system has been such a hit, I would propose, because the games that use the control system are relatively simple in terms of their gameplay mechanics. There's a reason why my grandmother's assisted living facility has three Wii machines hooked up in their rec room: games lilke bowling don't require a robust set of commands.
When we get to FPS games, however, where players can often be required to sprint, duck under cover, reload a weapon, pop out from cover, aim, shoot, and dive back into cover all in the space of a few seconds, the required sensitivity of a motion controller for competitive play versus opponents using the traditional control schemes increases exponentially. Ironically, it may be that control schemes like haptics or Skinput, which from the ground up predicated on the capture and interpretation of subtle movements into data, may be more effective than Move or NATAL for the sorts of "hardcore" games that are standard fare on the PlayStation 3 or XBox 360.
The commercial nature of video games as product will be the ultimate arbiter as to what options gamers will ever be offered in terms of control schemes. Considering the growing set of potential control inputs for science and technology in general, I hope that Move and NATAL are successful not for the sake of increasing the corporate coffers of Sony and MicroSoft, but rather as proof of the economic viability of moving past the control pad. I would love to see the day where I don't have to recharge my controller's batteries because my controller is actually my forearm.
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