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Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony Hope to Change the Game

The game industry’s big three announce innovations that could lead to completely new types of games.

Nintendo’s new tablet controller

This week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Nintendo announced the Wii U—its follow-up to its successful but aging Wii console—and once again it’s the controller that’s most impressive. The controller is the size of a tablet, with a 6.2-inch touch screen at its center. It comes equipped with a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a microphone, and a camera, as well as a full suite of traditional game joysticks and buttons.

Nintendo says its controller opens up a new window on the game world. In demonstrations, users hurled virtual throwing stars off of the pad and onto a television screen by sliding their hands across the controller’s screen. The stars disappeared for a moment and reappeared on the screen as if they’d traveled through the intervening space.

Users could also place the pad on the ground to represent a virtual golf tee, and then use the original Wii-mote controller as a golf club—sending the ball into the television screen.

Games can also be displayed on the Wii U controller’s HD screen itself, instead of the television. The controllers display can also supplement the primary television display—managing the player’s inventory of virtual bombs and boomerangs while playing Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, for example.

With the Wii, Nintendo redefined how game players interfaced with technology. This year’s E3 demonstrated that the push for interactive novelty is as strong as ever.

But not everything was as it seemed. At a press conference, Nintendo presented footage of high-end games such as Ghost Recon and Darksiders II. The high-definition footage gave the impression that Nintendo’s new hardware would be every bit as powerful as current-generation machines like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.

No wonder: the footage was actually taken from those machines.

Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime told the website GameTrailers that the footage was of existing 360, PlayStation 3, and PC titles. But he also noted that the Wii U would support full 1080p HD, and would match the output of the Wii’s current-generation competitors.

Microsoft opens up the Kinect

Microsoft’s Kinect, which debuted last November, lets users control their Xbox 360 using a mixture of gestural and voice commands. The device uses an infrared laser scanner and a camera to create a 3-D model of a room and the objects in it. Hobbyists have coaxed many new non-game applications out of the Kinect—for instance, allowing users to create actual music by playing air guitar—but, until now, Microsoft has done little to tap into this creativity.

Enter Kinect Fun Labs, announced on Monday at E3. Fun Labs creates a hub on the preëxisting Xbox LIVE network, where players can find new applications for the Kinect that have been created by outside developers.

Microsoft’s demoed three such gadgets for the Kinect at E3. Kinect Me lets users create a 3-D scan of themselves and turn it into a stylized avatar that can then be used inside a game. The process requires two scans: one of the face, and one of the whole body. The avatar is then created in a few seconds.

Kinect Googly Eyes operates in a similar way, but it scans inanimate objects instead. In a demo, Googly Eyes scanned the front and back of a stuffed animal to create a 3-D version in the game world. The player could then animate the virtual toy by moving around. Kinect Sparkler takes a 3-D picture of a scene, and lets the user draw in three dimensions within that space using his or her fingertips, creating an effect similar to rapidly moving a real “sparkler.” Microsoft promised that more gadgets would be added to Kinect Fun Labs over time.

Sony’s twist on 3-D Television

Sony announced a PlayStation-branded 3-D television that will also offer an interesting new trick. In addition to creating the illusion of depth, the television can display one 2-D image to each of two players. The television uses polarized light to show each player a different image, providing they’re wearing glasses that filter the correct polarization. The idea is that coöperative games could allow players to each have an entire screen for themselves, eliminating the need to split the screen to make two individual displays (the usual practice for multiplayer games).

Of course, to take advantage of this capacity, games will have to support it, and it remains to be seen how many games will do this—enterprising hackers have already created versions of the same effect using existing games and displays.

Sony says it plans to release the 24-inch television along with one pair of glasses, an HDMI cable, and a copy of Resistance 3 (a big-budget game due out this fall) for $500.

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