Nintendo, without a doubt, started a big ball rolling when they announced details the Wii's motion control abilities. It seemed a risky move to pin the hopes and dreams of the company's new hardware on the success of innovative controls ahead of graphical prowess. Thankfully for all involved, it worked. Such has been the run away success of Nintendo's motion-controlled revolution that it was almost inevitable Microsoft and Sony would follow suit with their own take on the idea. With rumours of new hardware from both camps rife it came as little surprise when this years E3 saw the debut of Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's PlayStation branded effort, the motion controlled game was most definitely on. Now, with the dust settled on both announcements, it seems an ideal time to have a look at what all this new technology means for the future of the industry and ponder its effect on the games we'll be playing in the future.
First things first, while we're all by now familiar with what the Wii can do it's worth going over what Microsoft and Sony's new gizmos bring to the table. While the existence of the Wii has clearly played its part in the development of both new technologies it is interesting to note that neither are directly trying to do the same thing as Nintendo's offering. Instead the core of both systems appears based around cameras and their ability to recognise and interpret movement within a 3D space.
First up comes Microsoft's Project Natal. Pitched as a completely gesture based control method, you won't need a gamepad or any other kind of handheld controller at all. The magic to make this possible comes from a small sensor bar that can be positioned either above or below the TV. Inside the bar is a whole bundle of technology including an RGB camera, a depth sensor, a multi-array microphone and most interestingly it's own processor. This processor will be used to run proprietary software that provides the system with full body 3D motion capture as well as facial and voice recognition capabilities.
All very impressive sounding and it's looking good too if the tech demos seen so far are anything to go by. Milo and Kate from Lionhead is the current poster child, Peter Molyneux's offering provided a spookily convincing interaction between the player and an on screen child. Other game ideas demoed were perhaps a little less instantly impressive and included Ricochet, a 3D Breakout-esque game where the player uses his or her body to bounce the balls towards the blocks and Paint Party which involves lobbing cans of paint onto a wall to create, well, whatever you want really.
Over on the other side of the debate comes Sony's as yet unnamed effort, referred to by US chief Jack Tretton as the "PlayStation Motion Controller". Consisting of a handheld wand, the existing PlayStation Eye webcam is used to do all the movement tracking while internal sensors on the wand itself detects motion. Sticking out of the end of the wand is an orb that can glow in a range of colours. This coloured light will serve as a marker which the PlayStation Eye can use to calculate the wand's position, the fact that it will also know the exact size and shape of the light will mean it can calculate depth too giving it the ability to track movement in a full 3D environment.
There's not been a whole lot of actual game footage of any titles in development for the PSMC as of yet although the E3 presentation did show how a pair of controllers could be used in tandem for certain tasks and there's apparently the possibility to use one alongside a standard PlayStation pad, for example if you want to use the wand as a sword while holding the pad as a shield.
So, now we've got three different interpretations of motion control, one from each of the three big players in the console war. All that's left is to sit back and watch what happens next, to see if a clear winner appears and what gamers make of all this new technology. It may not all be plain sailing though, the Wii's been around for a while now and despite it's obvious success it's not been without its critics.
If there's been one central criticism the Wii has suffered from ever since its release it's been how focused its games have been towards the casual gamer. While it is easy to blame this apparent shift in focus away from the hardcore on the very real success of Nintendo's attempts to market the Wii to a more mainstream audience, its just as possible that a lot of developers are genuinely struggling to use the console's abilities for much more than mini game collections or waggle friendly family games.
If its Nintendo's hard won mainstream market position that's dictating the style of games then the appearance of motion control on the more hardcore focused PS3 and Xbox 360 could finally see any shackles imposed by perceived market requirement come off. Developers may finally feel able to let their imagination fly, safe in the knowledge their efforts don't have to appeal to both six and 60 year olds. Such a development could also help those Wii gamers looking for more interesting innovation as successful ideas move cross-platform.