LOS ANGELES--Forget the console wars. We're in the motion-sensitive controller wars.
That much became clear Tuesday when, following on Monday's announcement by Microsoft that it was working on Project Natal, an impressive and complex full-body, hands-free motion-sensitive control system, both Nintendo and Sony revealed plans for new, advanced systems of their own.
Of course, Microsoft is the only real newcomer to this party. After all, Sony introduced the Eye Toy, a system that incorporated users' body movements into some games, years ago, and Nintendo's Wii vaulted to huge popularity on the strength of the innovative controls of its now-famous Wii-mote.
But over the last two days here at E3--the video game industry's most watched trade show--we've seen the three major video game hardware makers each up the ante in the race to provide consumers with much more intuitive ways to play games. And it's abundantly clear that what's really going on here is an aggressive play by each of the three companies to make their offerings more palatable to mainstream audiences, people who have traditionally not considered themselves gamers.
Microsoft's Project Natal is a hands-free, full-body sensing control system that can be used to play games, watch movies, do virtual painting, and much more. It appears to be easy to use, and quick to get going on. It's not known yet how much it will cost, or whether it will be bundled with the Xbox or sold as an accessory.
Nintendo's newly announced improvements to Wii Motion Plus (see video below) is the most incremental of the three new systems. It takes the successful Wii-mote and adds a physical feedback system that lets users feel what they're doing, and it also allows for rotational motion in 3D space, such as spinning a skydiver's body around, which someone could do in "Wii Sports Resort," one of the games that Nintendo said would benefit from the new control system.
And Sony's new system is a set of wands with glowing orbs on top, that allow one-to-one motion like Nintendo's original Wii-mote, and which also give tangible physical feedback like the new Nintendo system.
With its massive success with the Wii, Nintendo would seem to have a leg up over its competitors. That's only because it doesn't have to work very hard to market its motion-sensitive control regimen at this point: everyone knows that the Wii controller is simple, easy to use, and responds to users' hand and arm gestures.
On the other hand, Nintendo's new technology also represents the smallest incremental change, meaning that it will actually be more difficult to convince would-be customers that its new offering is much different than what it had before.
By comparison, both Sony and Microsoft are offering something entirely new, and will certainly have little trouble building marketing campaigns around them once they're ready to go on sale. The answer to the question of when those technologies actually will go on sale is not yet known, and it's certainly a big question. Whoever is last to this game will probably have a hard time selling their technology as new and innovative.
Based on this new arms race, however, it's clear there is exactly one guaranteed winner: consumers. Until now, people who wanted a true motion-sensitive controller had only one choice: the Wii. Now--or rather, when the technology hits the market--people who are considering buying a video game console will be able to choose whichever system they want. Their choice, in the end, may well be able to come down to which games are on offer.
And one would have to expect, since it's very obvious that all three companies are now going after the truly mainstream audience, that all three will be pushing their developer partners hard to come up with more casual gaming experiences, and fast.
I really liked what I saw from all three companies, even though all three technologies are somewhat different.
I actually think that Microsoft's Project Natal (see video below) is the biggest leap forward, and offers consumers the widest user experience. And given that Microsoft has been making huge strides in developing its Xbox Live service in such a way that there are plenty of things for casual gamers, or even non-gamers, to do, I suspect that Natal will end up being a real winner for the Xbox platform.
That said, the Xbox is also seen in the wider world, I think, as a much harder-core gaming console, as is the PS3. So, it was crucial for both Sony and Microsoft to come up with something for the casual gamer, and now. Whether they can change the perception of their consoles as geared to the hard-core is something I think will take some time. On the other hand, both companies are surely willing to throw a lot of marketing dollars at the problem, so I have faith those non-gamers out there will be seeing a lot of advertising geared at them.
Nintendo, meanwhile, has the opposite problem: it has to find a way to convince core gamers it has something to offer them. So I would imagine the company will be pushing its developer partners to incorporate its latest technology into more games geared to the "Halo" set.
Everyone wants to know about winners and losers, and I don't think we have any losers here. Whether we can crown winners yet is also unclear. I would have to say it's too early for that. But my sense is that there is plenty to be excited about here. And one thing that strikes me is that the technological innovations we've now seen from all three companies suggests that we're not about to see the next generation of consoles any time soon.
And why would we? With the new technology each company keeps putting out, we've already got three new systems, and we don't need to spend several hundred more dollars to get there.