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The Wii: Truly a Wanda for Everyone?

The Wii-mote, launched 2007

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.

It does not have to take much to control the Wii. You can stand with your feet apart, and planted on the floor firmly, remote in hand, and swing firmly to return a serve in tennis, or you can sit down, hold the remote, watch the ball's trajectory ,and flick the remote at the appropriate time to send the ball back. It's all up to the individual's preference or ability.

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.

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.
Straight away, this highlights a potential problem: VR is supposed to be enabling, levelling the playing field for everyone. If you have to move every part of your body, to play with it, it is forever out of reach for those who cannot.

If you are wheelchair bound, move with sticks, or have prosthetic limbs, or even pulled a muscle, or sprained ankle, have a hangover, or even just feel stiff that day…you are barred from using the eye-toy, because it demands you stand and jiggle to it, to work. Even with just a hangover, the LAST thing you care to do is stand and jiggle. For the more serious body malfunctions, it is again raising the standard VR has been mostly working on lowering - the body has to function perfectly, or, even if the mind is willing, it's not going to happen.

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.
Another potential problem arises here, as an awful lot of people, don't particularly like the way they look. One of the most common reasons for embracing VR systems as a major part of an individual's life, is escapism from the physical world.

The last thing many people desire to see when immersed in a virtual environment is their own physical form staring back at them.

Reinforcing the previous point, if the person is physically disabled, and so cannot get the eye-toy to function correctly for them, it does not do their confidence much good, to have that visually reinforced right back at them, via the display screen. It almost feels as if it is mocking them the disability. This is not a great way to encourage people to use it.

The Eye-Toy works by detecting movement against the background. Sounds great in principle. How about in practice?
This may be glimpsed without using an eye-toy, but only really hits home just how bad it is, when you actually use one.

The Eye-Toy is horrible, horrible, at detecting movement against a cluttered background. Using it with lots of furniture, ornaments, posters, and light sources that don't illuminate everywhere equally, in the space behind you, is a big no-no. The eye-toy will get confused, and movement becomes jerky and unreliable. Using one, when there are people moving in the background, or cars beyond a window, is just plain suicidal. Your 'control' will jump around on screen, as it tries to work out what it thinks 'you' are doing, as 'you' are everything moving in its field of vision.

This gets even worse if there is a television system in the camera's view, and even worse, it is on.

Suddenly, you find you are not the one controlling it at all, the television screen is. It picks up movements of the cricket on TV, in preference to you. You'll still get the odd movement in, but by and large, your television is doing the controlling.

The eye-toy works best, against a large, uncluttered background. Don't even think of trying it outside, as the breeze rustling through the leaves will give it a nervous breakdown. Instead, find a completely uncluttered wall, with nothing on it. Remove any pictures, slide any furniture aside, and ensure it has a wallpaper as close to unpatterned as possible, since patterned paper in a variety of contrasting colours, will also help to confuse it.

Might be starting to make sense now, why only 10% of playstation users, have one.

Closed and privileged development system.
As the final nail in the coffin - this nail would have sealed it, even without all the others - Sony made development for the Eye-Toy a privilege, not a right.

The means for connection from the eye-toy to the Playstation, and the development libraries to work with it, were completely unobtainable for developers, unless they had actively worked for Sony. This closed out the majority of independent developers, all visualisation experts, and all but the major players in entertainment studios. With iron-grip control over their interface, Sony ensured no-one developed an unapproved application for it, and signed the death warrant for their own device.

Back to the Wii-mote

The Wanda, launched 1992

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?

The Eye-Toy, launched 2003

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.

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