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Controlling the future

The Wii isn't first in trying to change how we play...

Nintendo's Wii console (or more specifically it's unconventional controller) caused much of a 'hoo ha' at its unveiling back at the Tokyo Game Show in 2005. Promising to shake up a stagnated gaming environment and boasting new and innovative ways to play, the secretive Japanese videogaming giant's home console future now potentially lies in the success or failure of a television remote-alike. Sony's big wigs also caused a fuss over their next-generation controller by ditching an initial 'boomerang' design for the PS3 in favour of its established Dual Shock joypad with the added addition of motion sensitivity. Microsoft head honcho Bill Gates has already scorned both Nintendo and Sony's design ideas by proclaiming that the PS3 and Wii's controller designs don't make for 'mainstream' gaming, alluding to the minimal success of the company's tilt-sensitive Sidewinder Freestyle Pro joypad released in 2000.

With that clearly in mind, only the coming months and years will reveal whether Big Willy's prophetic lines unfold into a reality. Until then, feast your eyes on this lovely lot of weird, wonderful (and mostly motion-controlled) peripherals released over the past fifteen years - those the world were just not ready for, or were never really destined to 'disrupt' the way we play.

Name: Power Glove
Company: Mattel (USA), PAX (Japan)
Console: NES
Year: 1989
Price: $100 approx. Controlling the future

The Power Glove was based on the technology used in a device called the VPL Data Glove, a piece of hardware used in the late 1980s in the enormously ambitious creation of virtual reality environments. The VPL could detect yaw, pitch and roll and used fibre optic sensors to recognise finger movements. However, due to cost issues the gauntlet-like accessory was downgraded for the NES and could only track motion in three-space and the player's finger positioning on its release.

The Power Glove was compatible with over 50 NES games including Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon and Bubble Bobble, allowing control of onscreen characters via arm movements. A numeric keypad on the side of the glove also allowed for limited gameplay enhancements such as increasing and decreasing fire power. Promotional material at the time described using the Power Glove as being able to be 'in' the action of the game you were playing. 'You actually knock Mike out, Mike Tyson... fire your P-38 in 1943' it said. Another proclaimed 'Combine the hottest video game with a $10,000 computer peripheral, shape it into an inexpensive yet futuristic 'glove', and you've got this year's smash toy.'

Despite the hype, the Power Glove's novelty value and futuristic look was not enough to secure it global success. The device used cheap microphones to relay ultrasonic waves in order for the glove and console to work together, but positioning the microphones without any outside interference was difficult, resulted in inconsistent results.

Name: NES Hands Free Controller
Company: Nintendo
Console: NES
Year: 1989
Price: $120 standalone kit or $179 including the console and a game. Controlling the future

Nintendo's philosophy has always been that its games should be available to everyone, not just children and spotty teenagers - or as the case was in 1989, not just to able bodied individuals either.

The NES Hands Free Controller consisted of a back-to-front backpack-type device that strapped onto the front of the player and was compatible with all of the console's games (multiplayer an' all) except those that required the NES' light gun or zapper. The directional pad was replaced by a chunky joystick that could be manipulated by the player's chin whilst the functions of the 'A' and 'B' buttons were carried out by softly 'sipping' or 'puffing' from and into a bendy tube that stuck out from the top of the chunky piece of kit. Meanwhile, the 'Select' and 'Start' buttons could be activated by sipping or puffing more forcefully. In addition, two dials on the front of the unit enabled the sensitivity of the breath inputs to be tinkered as well as switching around the sipping or puffing functions.

The Hands Free Controller was a non-profit device sold directly through Nintendo's Customer Care line and made available in three sizes. Due to its target audience it was distributed in limited numbers, but the idea behind it was certainly both heartfelt and novel.

Name: CD-I Thumbstick
Company: Philips
Console: Philips CD-I (bundled with various versions)
Year: 1991
Price: $400 approx. for the console. Controlling the future

Many journalists and gamers alike have sourced Philips' CD-i and Thumbstick control that it was bundled with, as suspiciously similar to Nintendo's 'Wiimote.' Nintendo and Philips have history together, in that the two companies struck a deal in the early 1990s - Philips were to develop a CD-ROM attachment for the Super Nintendo and in return Nintendo would license games and its characters for use in Philips' multimedia console, the CD-i. Sony had previously signed the same deal with Nintendo, but legal wranglings over profits made from a cartridge and CD-based Super Nintendo console meant that the contract was written off. In the end, Nintendo cancelled plans for a CD-ROM attachment for the SNES altogether.

The Thumbstick controller's unconventional design didn't really aid a console, which, despite Philips' megabucks investments was destined to fail. Numerous multimedia titles were made for the CD-i including Titanic: An Interactive Exploration and, erm, The Joy of Sex. For these simple point and click titles the Thumbstick worked adequately, but for more complex games where more than one button needed pressing quickly after another, the controller was completely inept. Users had to hold the clunky peripheral in two hands for easy access to every button which was awkward in itself, defeating the object of its one-handed design completely. Adding further injury to insult was the fact that the TV-remote-alike was easily breakable and that the console only had one controller port, meaning any potential multiplayer action could not commence before the purchase of a multi-tap device.

Name: Sega Genesis Activator Ring
Company: Sega
Console: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive
Year: 1993
Price: $79.99

The Sega Genesis Activator Ring was an octagonal ring in which the player stood and each one of the device's eight sides corresponded to a button on the console's ordinary joy pad. The Activator Ring emitted invisible infrared beams upwards, surrounding the player; when these lines were broken by the player's movement, the location was supposed to correspond with the onscreen action. Controlling the future

Although the device was compatible with most Sega Genesis games, it was built specifically for a set of games that included Streets of Rage 3, Mortal Kombat and Eternal Champions, the latter of which was bundled with the controller. After calibrating the ring before each use, players were expected to punch and kick their way to victory in what was more likely to be an exhausting physical work out rather than a tension-releasing leisure time activity. For this reason and the fact that the signals that the Activator sent to the Sega Genesis were wildly inaccurate, the peculiar add-on never caught on.

Name: The Glove
Company: Reality Quest
Console: PlayStation and Nintendo 64
Year: 1997
Price: $89.95

Nearly a decade after the Power Glove, Reality Quest announced that it was to release a similar add-on for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. The glove fitted snugly onto the right hand of a player who could then use smooth wrist actions to control onscreen movements thanks to advanced proprietary and optical-sensing technology.

The Glove's action buttons were housed underneath the controller's fingertips. Reality Quest promised that such easy access to the necessary controls would make playing games a more natural and comfortable pastime, like 'touch typing' and in as much doing away any need for fiddly thumb-pressed combos. 'The "input" of present-day controllers pales in comparison to the "output" of the 32/64-bit systems. The Glove puts that same level of next-generation excitement into gameplay' scoffed Noah Ullman, producer of The Glove and co-founder of Reality Quest, before the device's release.

The Glove also included the option to control games with analog technology, at a time where the majority of games used a digital input. This meant that sensitive movements no longer required the player to quickly tap a direction on the control pad, but could switch to pivoting their wrist to relay a smoother, easier method of onscreen movement. One anonymous Amazon customer said of the controller: 'This was a good controller- i think u should get it.' However, The Glove was best suited to gaming genres with simple control needs such as racers and beat-em-ups. This fairly limited spectrum of use and a hefty price tag was probably enough to put off many consumers and prevent any real prospect of global success for a peripheral talked so highly of by its developers.

Name: Tilt Pak
Company: Pelican
Console: Nintendo 64
Year: Late 1990s?
Price: $19.95

The Pelican Tilt Pak was a third-party Nintendo 64 peripheral, a device with two parts - one which slotted into the memory card and Rumble Pak part of the N64 joypad and a signal-receiving dongle-type piece which fitted into the console's controller port. The device housed motion sensors that enabled players to manipulate the controller in order to direct onscreen action. The Pak could be titled left or right to steer in compatible games, whilst an in-built rumble function added extra weight and impact. <./p>

Despite sounding gimmicky, the Pak worked surprisingly well and thanks to an option to set its motion sensor sensitivity levels, could be adapted to the needs of various games - from the gentle twists and turns of Pilotwings 64 to the madcap loops and hairpin bends of F-Zero X. The accessory's only disadvantages were the two AAA batteries required for the kit to operate and the lack of any memory card functionality. The latter meant that the device had to be removed (deleting its current settings) and replaced with a memory card every time a save wanted to be made.

Name: Microsoft Sidewinder Freestyle Pro
Company: Microsoft
Console: None... PC
Year: 2000
Price: $40 approx.

The marketing blurb asked: 'Ready for something revolutionary? How about a game controller that enables you to control the game activity by simply tilting it in the direction you want to move. Nothing controls movement within today's 3-D action games better than the fluid motion of the SideWinder Freestyle Pro.'

Just like it said on the tin, Microsoft wanted to bring a uniquely immersive gaming experience to its customers through the Sidewinder Freestyle Pro. The controller was bundled with Motorcross Madness so that gamers could jump straight into experiencing what the device had to offer. And, despite Bill Gate's recent criticisms, although the Sidewinder didn't change the face of gaming forever, it was a reliable and genuinely useable control method in games to which its attributes were most suited, including racers and flight simulators. Users could also toggle the motion sensitivity on and off if they preferred, so that its use was functional beyond games demanding less of the device's motion-sensing capabilities.

Surmising...

There are of course plenty more weird contraptions and add-ons that have been invented to enhance our experience of playing videogames, ranging from light guns and headsets to maracas and bongos - and obviously the majority of the above-described accessories were not enough to pivot the success of a massively expensive hardware venture, (sorry Philips). It could happen again now, though, especially in the case of Nintendo. The question here is whether an irregular control scheme can succeed as a console's primary input. Are Nintendo and Sony striking at the right time with their motion-enhanced consoles or are they risking too much, with Microsoft being the sensible party and biding its time? Are we all now ready for these new ways to play? Time, experience and our decisions as consumers will ultimately provide the answers to these questions.

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