Motion Sickness: Hoping Motion Control Doesn’t Suck in 2010

Motion control is coming full swing in 2010.

The new decade promises much for gaming. Both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 are entering the latter half of their ten-year life cycle, and as the technology matures, so do expectations. More, now than ever, developers are pushing toward a sense of total immersion in video games. Cinematic techniques have steadily crept into the industry and become standard, while 3D technology is gearing up to make its console début.

Not to be overlooked among the buffet of emerging technologies is motion control. Sony has announced a Fall 2010 release for their Playstation Motion Controller (perhaps better known by its nickname, the “wand”), while Microsoft is planning a Holiday release of their motion-detection device, Project Natal.

But motion control is nothing new, right?

Wrong. At least, kind of. The motion control system originally released by Nintendo (the Wii Remote) is archaic in comparison to this year’s expected releases, most especially project Natal. Natal (which is a working title) is a new kind of motion-sensing technology, a technology which functions more like a complex brain than a point-and-click controller.

Here’s the rundown: Natal works by emitting infra-red light, which a black-and-white camera then detects on the user and the room. (Quick: What’s black-and-white and infra-red all over?) The amount of light reflected to the camera informs Natal of the user’s movements and position. Still, this would be a lot of useless data if the “brain” inside Project Natal hadn’t already “learned” terabytes of information.

According to an article in Popular Science, Microsoft has fed Natal literally millions of images of people in different positions. In each case, programmers have identified basic parts of human anatomy for the computer (head, hand, leg, etc.). Over time, the machine learns to differentiate the components for itself, becoming competent enough to scan an image of a user and identify their various body parts in less than a second.

In that second, Natal makes a rough sketch of your skeletal position, identifies the body parts and joints it knows, figures out the ones it doesn’t, and then renders it on screen. Phew. You can probably guess why scientists and engineers are referring to Natal as a mechanical “brain” rather than a remote-control device.

Natal scans, interprets, and loads information in less than a second.

The result? You play games by moving your body. Tech demonstrations have shown users controlling an avatar to deflect incoming projectiles. Users swat at incoming balls, and their character makes the same motion in real time.

Sony’s project looks to work similarly to Nintendo’s second motion control technology, the Wii MotionPlus, which attaches to the original Wii Remote. The Nintendo add-on allows for 1:1 tracking, meaning actions with the remote are repeated on screen with perfect accuracy. At least, that’s the idea. Nintendo’s device has met criticism since its release in 2009, most of which questions the accuracy of its 1:1 tracking.

For their part, Sony has assured the public that their Playstation Motion Control will have true 1:1 motion detection. The current build of the controller has a pink orb on its end, which works in conjunction with Sony’s Eye Toy Camera. The camera tracks the motion of the wand (or wands; one bow-and-arrow demonstration showed the user holding two controllers at once) and translates it on-screen, the orbs functioning similarly to the white spheres found on Hollywood mo-cap suits.

Of course, I could go on about this all day without addressing the elephant in the room. The question on everybody’s minds—including the people at Microsoft and Sony, I hope—is how to keep motion-sensing technology from disappointing.

If you’ve played the Wii, you probably know that as fun as motion control can be, it can also suck. A lot. True, some games have used motion-control to great benefit (I’m thinking of the recent Metroid Prime 3 in particular), but others have found it to be unnecessary, awkward, and frustrating.

Natal looks pretty, but will it waggle?

That’s right. I’m talking about the waggle effect.

Waggle” describes what feels like a trite use of motion control. It can describe that frustrating movement you can’t quite complete correctly, or the otherwise unnecessary use of motion control in a given situation. In short, it describes everything that doesn’t work with the technology.

So what’s to keep Natal and the Playstation Motion Control from waggling their way into obscurity? Being careful. Being judicious. Developers should use motion control, but they should use it only to their benefit, and never as a rule. Ten years from now it can become a rule. Today, we still need to figure out what works and what waggles.

Consider context-sensitive controls, for instance. They’re a great tool for games when used properly, and as the years have gone by, we’ve seen more and more of them implemented in games. Thankfully, no one ever said “Oh my god, context-sensitive controls are awesome! Let’s make an entire game out of them!” Instead, they borrowed what worked. They stole the good ideas and scrapped the bad ones.

Granted, pressing buttons in a certain order is far removed from using your entire body as a controller, but it still serves a point. Most developers aren’t going to master motion control in a single go. It’s going to take experimentation, revision, and again, blatant theft of other people’s ideas. Developers shouldn’t feel forced to figure it all out at once.

That’s not to say that a talented company won’t try to nail it on their first go, or that they won’t succeed (again, just play Metroid). Still, for most everyone else, slow and steady wins the race. It’s better to make a product that uses some motion control to its advantage, rather than complete motion control to its detriment or ultimate failure.

The good news is, it sounds like some developers have the right idea. Aaron Greenberg, Director of Product Management for Xbox 360, said that the upcoming Halo title is the kind of game that should be played with a controller, not your body. Whether or not the game will incorporate some motion control is unclear, but at least we don’t have to worry about crouching every time we want to teabag a fallen foe.

Sony hopes to tickle hardcore gamers with its motion control device.

Sony, on the other hand, is looking to address another long-running complaint against motion control, which is that it caters to “family” games and excludes the hardcore gamer. Sony has assured its fans that it intends to use motion control for a wide variety of games, including hardcore first person shooters.

The 2010 Fall and Holiday seasons are still a long way off, and both companies have more work to do on their motion control systems before launch. Nintendo has broken into the bubble first and soaked up much of the buzz, but rather than feeling late to the scene, developers should use this to their advantage. Sure, people will be wowed when they wave their hand and their on-screen character does the same, but motion control isn’t going to blow anyone away completely any more, not unless it’s done properly. Scratch that. Unless it’s done perfectly. And, if it’s done perfectly, it can blow people away years after its release.

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Written by Robert L.

3 comments

  1. KrazyFace /

    I still find it funny that after all the hoo-ing and ha-ing the industry and the fanboys did, gamers are starting to see a serious side to motion control. I agree that games like Metriod 3 have utilised the system well, and others have just woven it into their game mechanics in a sad attempt to appeal to the casual market, but it still begs the question in my mind, can I be bothered to use it a lot!

    After getting Bully for my Wii (I’d already done it all on the PS2) I gave up on it within half an hour, purely because it felt odd (even broken) to control Jimmy with the motion contols. My worry is that Natal/Wand games that use ONLY body movement as a control method will just be tiring rather than fun. I just can’t see someone like a labourer moving bricks and mortar around all day will think “I can’t wait to get home and jump around my livingroom all night long” for a source of entertainment.

    I know what you’re gonna say, that these control methods will be used in different ways. I just think the only people who will be bothered to use them as they are intended are small kids and possibly those with hyper-activity coursing though their veins.

  2. Oni-Samurai /

    I don’t own a 360 but microsofts project natal has me rather envious of what it will be potentially able to do & what the ps3 wand won’t.

    • KrazyFace /

      I’m not worried about the differences, the PSEye (I’m not saying it’s the same thing as Natal) can do similar things. When my dad found me navigating a menu system on a PSEye game using only my hands/arms in mid-air he said I looked like I was in Minority Report. Which I thought was kinda cool. Saying that, I find some of the PSEye games too exhastive to be fun. But I guess that’s just because I’m a cholesterol stuffed mess of a human!!!

      I kid, I kid. I’m just lazy.

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