Motion Controlled Gaming Explained

Yesterday we talked about the evolution of motion controlled gaming and its future. Today we wade through the technical jargon to give you a comprehensive comparison between the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360’s Project Natal, and the PlayStation Move for PS3.

Nintendo Wii
The Wii was what started the motion control phenomenon. It’s been around for three years now and although it still offers a compelling gameplay experience, it would be unfair to compare the technology it employs to the competition, who have had a lot more time to develop their tech. At the core are the Wii remote or Wiimote, and a sensor bar which sits in front or on top of your TV. The Wiimote features a 3D accelerometer that helps locate its position in a 3D space, optical sensors that allow it to be used as a pointing device, as well as standard buttons and a directional pad. A secondary controller, the Nunchuck, features an analog stick and is connected to the Wiimote via a cable. It also features an accelerometer, but lacks optical sensing. In 2009, Nintendo released the Wii MotionPlus, a Wii remote accessory that improves the accuracy and responsiveness of the controller.

Although the Wii can technically sense motion in a 3D space, not many games, including Nintendo’s first party titles, have been able to detect the depth of the controller’s location. This means that, while it can detect up and down movements, front and back movements aren’t accurately detected. This is evident in games like Wii Sports, where in a game of tennis, players can easily get by by just flicking their wrists rather than swinging their arms back and forth to mimic realistic tennis strokes.

But while the Wii may be slightly lacking in the tech department, Nintendo has more than made up for it through innovation via accessories like the Wii Balance Board, which has been a phenomenal success with games like Wii Fit. Another accessory, the Wii Vitality Sensor, is scheduled for release this year. Then of course, there’s the software support, which has been stellar, particularly Nintendo’s first-party offerings. And with the massive user base worldwide, third-party developers have also thrown all their support behind Wii game development.

But perhaps the biggest testament to the Wii’s success is how Nintendo’s biggest rivals – Sony and Microsoft, are desperately trying to play catch-up by introducing their own motion tech. And who knows, by the time Sony and Microsoft finally join the party, we may well see Nintendo announce the Wii’s successor - the heavily rumored Wii HD, to once change the rules to the game that they invented.
Project Natal
There’s so much still unknown about the Xbox 360’s motion control technology that even officially, just a few months away from release, it’s still being called “Project” Natal. Natal is the most ambitious and radically different motion control technology of all, because unlike what Nintendo and Sony have showcased, Natal doesn’t include a controller. In Natal, the player is the controller.

The technology employs only a camera that uses a CMOS censor and infrared to detect motion in a 3D space, and the infrared projection ensures that the effectiveness of the motion sensing is not reduced in low light conditions. While the camera is used to capture motion and sound, the real work is done by the Natal software, which uses an innovative skeletal mapping technology that not only accurately picks up movements in the entire body, but can do so for four individuals concurrently. In addition, the software is also capable of advanced gesture, face and voice recognition.

What Natal offers is a new way to play, and by removing the controller from the equation, it aims to make gaming even more accessible to casual gamers. However, due to the nature of the technology and the secrecy Microsoft has so far maintained around it, certain doubts remain. The first of these is input lag and accuracy. Natal demo videos so far have shown considerable lag in gameplay and often subtle body movements aren’t picked up in-game, but Microsoft has promised that both will be fixed by the time it launches at year-end.

Another concern, of course, is that since Natal uses the full body as the controller, you will naturally have to stand far enough from the device for your entire body to fit in the camera frame. Not many living rooms in India, or elsewhere in the world for that matter, have that much open space to play around with. Thirdly, to cut costs, Microsoft recently decided to remove the processor chip that resided inside the Natal camera, leaving all the processing up to the console hardware. This increases the strain on the console, which now has to capture and process camera inputs in addition to processing game data, and this could make it very difficult to implement Natal in CPU and graphics-intensive games.

However, Natal also has quite a few advantages over its competitors. For starters, a game and the Natal camera are all you need to let up to four players join in the fun. There is no added expense of peripherals. By comparison, you would need four sets of controllers for multi-player gaming with the Wii or PlayStation Move. Since a lot of the work is done by the software, it also means the Natal camera itself will be relatively inexpensive (rumored to be around $50 i.e.: approx Rs 2,500). Additionally, the controller-less technology allows developers to employ Natal in games that use the controller for primary gameplay. For example, in a shooting game, while the controller would perform the primary functions of movement and shooting, hand gestures using Natal could be used to lob grenades.

Microsoft has already managed to garner significant support for Natal from third-party game publishers, including EA, who will use Natal in Grand Slam Tennis. Of course, Microsoft will also support it strongly with in-house releases such as Fable III from Lionhead Studios. There are still many unanswered questions about Natal, but don’t write it off. Microsoft has taken a risk with this game-changing technology, and the coming months will tell us if it has paid off.
PlayStation Move
If Microsoft and Sony’s announcements of their foray into motion controlled gaming didn’t already reek of a me-too attitude, Sony only fanned the flames further by developing motion controllers that very closely resemble the Wii setup. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there’s a lot more to the PlayStation Move than meets the eye.

In terms of hardware, PlayStation Move incorporates elements of the Wii and Natal. Like the Wii, there are two controllers – the primary Move controller, and the secondary Move navigation controller, which is optional and can be substituted with a regular PS3 controller. But like Natal, PlayStation Move uses the PlayStation Eye camera to capture motion instead of a sensor bar. Both controllers communicate with the console via Bluetooth and the Move controller features a glowing orb that can be lit up in a range of colors. This orb acts as a point of reference for the capture device – the PlayStation Eye, while the fixed size of the orb also lets the camera determine how far away from it the controller is located.

An accelerometer, an angular sensor, as well as magnetic sensing via a magnetometer deliver pin-point accuracy and also accurately pick up rotations of the controller. The technology is also designed to track the controller when it is out of view of the camera or hidden behind the player’s back. In addition to the visual reference provided by the orb, this tech allows the PlayStation Eye to track motion in a 3D space accurately and with minimum lag.

Since its unveiling last year, the PlayStation Move has been seen in action on a few occasions, demonstrating good accuracy and minimal lag. By including motion controllers and a camera, it allows developers to leverage the accuracy provided by a controller, with additional features like facial and gesture recognition and head-tracking afforded by the PlayStation Eye camera. And while the PlayStation Move may have been criticized for sticking too close to the Wii formula, it has helped Sony garner third-party developer support, with games like EA Sports’ Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 set to feature PlayStation Move controls. Many existing games, such as Heavy Rain, will be patched with Move support, and Sony’s in-house studios will also release several dedicated PlayStation Move games.

But while the Move boasts pinpoint accuracy with negligible lag and promises robust software support, it isn’t without its shortcomings, the biggest of which is the price of admission. Even for someone who already owns a PS3, it will require a considerable investment to get gaming with the PlayStation Move. The starter pack, which includes the camera, one PlayStation Move controller, and possibly a game, is estimated to be priced a little below $100 (approx Rs 5,000). The cost of the Move navigation controller, and additional sets of controllers for a second player will further add to the cost.

Scheduled to release just before the holiday season, it remains to be seen if the PlayStation Move is able to deliver on its promise and take motion controlled gaming beyond what the world has already seen with the Wii. While this is a good proposition for existing PS3 owners, Sony will need to ensure a steady stream of high-quality games and good motion control implementation to lure the casual audience that they’re going after.

Published Date: May 25, 2010 11:16 am | Updated Date: May 25, 2010 11:16 am