The Wii: Truly a Wanda for Everyone?
The Nintendo Wii has been out for almost half a year at time of writing. The Wii-mote 3D pointer control coming straight with the system was a massive gamble for the company, and, if it had not taken off, it would have buried the hopes of the VR community, that full immersion systems have any chance of being mainstream.
Fortunately, it did take off, and in a big way.
Highly reminiscent of the Wanda, an early 1990s 3D pointer that performed much
the same function, but was designed for Unix operating environments and high-end
visualisation, the Wii-mote , the remote controller is the heart of the Wii.
It translates body or hand movements - any movement that affects the controller
- into 3D spatial co-ordinates, and force/direction of acceleration data, which
it then transmits to the Wii's processors for input data.
Previous Attempts to Mainstream 3D Movement
The Wii is far from the first attempt to take 3D movement and position sensing capability and introduce it to the mass market. Perhaps the most famous, earlier example, was the Sony Eye-Toy. The Eye-Toy was - and still is - an optional expansion purchase for the PlayStation. It does not ship as standard with the unit, and only around 10% of current playstation owners - across all three models - have one.
Fundamentally, the Eye Toy is simply a Logitech webcam which has been upgraded with machine vision software. It works by watching the user's whole body. It copies the image of the body, and uploads it onto the screen in real-time, letting the person see themselves, and using the shape of their body to collision detect. As they move their hand upwards, or their head sideways, the eye-toy tracks this, and updates the system with it, so if their arm or head 'connects' with a virtual object, the system knows that, and adjusts accordingly.
There are a few major glitches with the Eye-Toy system, some recognisable immediately, others, perhaps not so obvious to everyone, and still others, which only become obvious when you use one.
Back to the Wii-mote
The Wii-mote has a high level of contrast to the eye-toy, as it differs on every flaw above, and chooses a different way. True, it too has flaws, and is far from perfect, but it achieved where the Eye-Toy and similar mainstream attempts failed, for a large part because it did not make these mistakes, and a few others like them.
Taking the same points above, we get this:
As Eye Toy uses the shape of your body for the controller you have got to move every part of your body, in order to control with it.
Not so with the Wii-mote . All it cares about is where the controller is,. You can be lounging on the bed, standing, sweaty in the middle of the room, sitting in a chair, or dangling suspended, from the ceiling. The Wii-mote just does not care. So long as you can move it about with force - be that wild movements or wrist flicks, it will work for you, without a hitch.
The Eye-Toy puts the form of your physical body - how you look, into the virtual environment, and reflects it back at you, from within.
The Wii does no such thing. The technology is totally different for one, for another, the Wii itself, does not care how you look, or what you are. You can be an industrial robot arm with dreams of becoming a graceful ballerina for all the Wii cares. It will do its damndest to let you be whatever you truly desire to be, in the virtual, without any regard to the physical. This is exactly how the tradition of VR life has always been.
The Eye-Toy works by detecting movement against the background. Sounds great in principle. How about in practice?
The Eye-Toy may work that way, but the Wii-mote does not. All movement sensing is internal to the remote. As long as you're not trying to dangle it over an erupting smokestack, or six inches from an operating bandsaw, or in the ash from a volcanic eruption, or for that matter, underwater, it is unlikely to care much about how cluttered your surroundings are. It will work equally as well, in a library, a TV sales shop, a noisy living room. It will work quite happily, even if the TV remote is cutting across its signals. As much as possible, everything is internalised, and away from the physical world.
Closed and privileged development system?
Far from it. Nintendo has welcomed anybody to use the Wii system however they feel fit, releasing oodles of material on how it functions. To date, it has even been used to control factory robot arms, as a sort of extended exoskeleton, and there is talk about bolting all manner of prop extras onto the Wii-mote itself, to add to the feel.
Indeed, the Wii-mote even has an open expansion port at it's base, so any developer can plug their own, additional function into the Wii-mote , and use the two controllers as one. Again, tights to develop this are not proprietary. They are open to everyone.
Finally, since the Wii is less demanding physically than the eye-toy, the games which the Wii's primary purpose is to play, have attracted a great many non-gamers to what is ostensibly a games console. This has great knock on benefits for everyone, both gaming and non-gaming immersive VR.
With the Wii it has opened the technology to everyone, and it is not uncommon to see people from 5 years old, to 60, and above, even if they have never gamed before in their life, playing, and enjoying themselves, with the Wii.