Sony, Microsoft Motion Controls Will Beat Wii at Its Own Game

Nintendo Wii's role as king of motion gaming consoles is at risk. Sony and Microsoft have both previewed motion control systems at the E3 video game expo, and both systems knock Wii clean off the throne--even though neither has announced when their controllers will become available to the public.

Sony's system is exclusively for the PS3 as it works in collaboration with the Playstation Eye camera. It uses a sensor-packed wand in combination with a glowing sphere that the Eye can recognise--similar, it seems, to the motion-capture systems used to make Gollum move realistically in Lord of the Rings. And, from the prototype demo shown at E3, it's absolutely awesome.

Sony's engineers noted they went for a physical wand, somewhat like the Wiimote, because sometimes you just "need a trigger." The combination of sensors and camera recognition give the controller sub-millimeter accuracy, and three-dimensional positioning. And since you can use two controls together, that opens up amazing gaming possiblities: Check the video of the demo for the archery game--the Wiimote just can't compete with that.

Microsoft has taken a totally different route. While Sony's option is a progression from the company's original EyeToy tech, combining that system's motion recognition with a sensor wand, Microsoft has developed a camera-based vision system. In its prototype form it's dubbed Project Natal, and by scanning with a camera, IR sensor and array microphones, it can track full body motions. It's connected up to the Xbox 360, and there is a sensor bar that sits under your TV like the Wii's one--but more sophisitcated.

Microsoft's also promoting the fact that Natal can be used to control more than just games--you can control menus by gesturing with your hands, facial recognition will auto-log you into your Xbox profiles, and so on. It's amazingly clever, and it surpasses what the Wii can do by an enormous factor, and is a steep challenge to Sony--after all, the Wii just tracks your hand motions, and does it approximately, versus Sony's precision hand-tracker.

But which will win? It's clear that Nintendo can't keep up with these two offerings, even with it's newly previewed higher-sensitivity Wii Motion Plus tech, because the basic control interface isn't as intelligent, and the Wii itself is a fairly hardware-limited machine. Microsoft has gone for a controller-free system, and it'll probably integrate sweetly with the Xbox Live experience. Natal's admittedly cheesey demo video shows how games using the system are likely to continue down the casual gaming road that Nintendo has trailblazed. Meanwhile Sony's system is amazingly rich, and offers a degree of sophistication far beyond either the Wii or Natal. The demo of first-person shooter mode suggests it's highly suited to more serious games. But it's not due on sale until next year at the earliest.

Now that everyone is familiar with the casual family motion control game--thanks, Nintendo!--I'm guessing it's time the motion control gaming genre to grow up. And when it comes to control complexity, and pushing more sales of consoles, Sony's system is the clear winner--unless Microsoft comes up with a few hardcore Natal gaming titles that dazzle before Sony does.

[via Gizmodo, Joystiq, Engadget]

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11 Comments

  • Phil Bicking

    Kit: With MotionPlus the Wiimote can now be tracked in 3D space quite accurately. It requires a short calibration by the system to know what the zero point is, but after that it will detect a full range of movements. Further, the Wii can measure depth even without MotionPlus whenever you are pointing the Wiimote at the sensor bar by monitoring the distance between the two IR dots on either end of the sensor bar (you move the remote closer, the dots spread apart; move the remote back, they move closer together.)

    In the end, the tech for Sony's device is very similar to the tech for the Wiimote. Both have a wand with gyroscopes and accelerometers that is tracked in 3D space. The difference is that the camera and sensor is reversed. With the Wii, the camera is in the remote and it "senses" where the IR bar is, and with Sony, the camera sits atop your TV and "senses" where the glowing orb is.

    I agree with you that Sony's hardware combined with this tech will allow for richer gaming experiences. But how long before this tech is ready to go? And how much longer after that will compelling software be available that takes advantage of it? Will developers even be willing to develop games for this tech, especially if the user base just isn't there?

    The Wii has a 3+ year head start over Sony. They already have the tech and software support in place. Not to mention a huge install base. Even if Sony sells an EyeToy and wand combo to every PS3 owner out there (highly doubtful), it won't come close to matching Wii's user base.

    So I say again, no one will be knocking the Wii off of the motion-controlled throne soon.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Phil. If you'd seen me wobbling on a balance board after a number of glasses of wine after a party the other day, you'd know I'm not anti-Wii. I'm not sure the Wii does depth-sensing, even with MotionPlus, though? I'm willing to be proved wrong. Still, I think at heart the Wii's hardware can't deliver the fully rich immersive experiences the Xbox and PS3 can...and combined with next-gen motion sensing, that gives those two the advantage. Just possibly.

  • Phil Bicking

    Wow, it is obvious from this article that you are anti-Wii. What does Sony bring to the table that the Wii doesn't already have? With Wii Motion Plus, everything Sony's device does the Wii Remote can replicate. Plus it is coming out in a few weeks WITH games supporting it.

    I grant you that Microsoft's tech is impressive. But I still don't know how it will translate to better core gaming experiences. Not having a controller really kills it. I like it's implementation as a user interface device though.

    But yeah, neither of these motion control systems is going to be knocking off the Wii any time soon. Both are still a year or more away and the only software support we have seen are limited tech demos, while Nintendo is releasing a solution that will give you full 1:1 motion control in a few weeks.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Noah. True, true. The form-meets-function rockband controllers are absolute classics, and follow the Dance Dance meme with a fairly low-tech game to match a dedicated controller. Watching how the "controller wars" play out will be fun, anyway.

  • NoahRobischon

    @Kit No one is going to test your theory about peripherals, that's for sure. I disagree with you, there is no way Halo would have sold as many units if there was a required peripheral. Guitar Hero is a different beast, and it's worth remembering that even that game had a slow build, it was not an overnight success. The peripherals was so unique, and enhanced the game in such a way that it was a must-have. The same is not true of a simple control gun for shooting. Also, the cost of developing a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game is mostly in licensing--these are not complex graphical games with huge development costs.

  • Kit Eaton

    @G. Good point. Tony Hawk seems to be going for broke with his expensive skateboard controller. But if the motion controllers for Xbox and PS3 end up being awesome for generic control, then perhaps they might not need a single blockbuster to get them to sell well. Wouldn't Halo still have been a megahit if you had to buy a Halo control gun? I suspect it would have been *more* successful.

  • G Irish

    I think that while both Natal and Sony's system looked impressive and innovative, ultimately it's about the games. Third party developers have been somewhat loathe to dedicate resources to making big triple-A titles for Wii and I think they'll be even more reluctant to do so for the 360 or PS3 simply because customers will be forced to go buy a peripheral along with the game.

    "But that doesn't stop people with Rockband and Guitar Hero", you say. True, but those are two awesome ground-breaking wide-appeal games. To get people to buy a peripheral you need to make a blockbuster (unless the motion controllers are cheap). And that means making a big bet.

    Of course you might just see some studios making games that can use either the standard controller or the motion controls. But in that case it's not going to deliver an experience that truly exploits what motion controls have to offer.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Peter--indeed, the Eye is a clever progression from the EyeToy, and it too incorporates an array microphone, but no depth-sensing. The "best of both worlds" approach does seem to offer the cleverest solution, though. As to whether they're too late in the day, I'm not so sure--SingStar is relatively new, and has resulted in a mini-boom in PS2 sales. And with rumors of a new PS3 Slim on the way (http://shortn.me/3A) maybe we'll see a resurgence of PS3 sales, which will push the motion controller into the limelight. What do you think?

  • NoahRobischon

    @peter You make an excellent point--Sony and Microsoft will have to either sell an expensive peripheral, or update their consoles entirely, to bring their motion control systems to life. But we're still 4 years from the next gen systems, and they'll have to try and compete with Nintendo on the motion control battlefield somehow. I expect we'll see a handful of lame games, along with peripherals in 2010. But agree that ultimately this is about positioning each system for the next gen--and by then, motion control will have reached entirely new levels as the tech will become cheaper and more sophisticated.

  • Peter Kennedy

    It's worth noting that the Playstation Eye is also a "camera-based vision system". It is not as sophisticated as Natal, which can also sense depth per pixel, but it's really the software that makes these cameras sing, and a Playstation Eye can also do things like head tracking and facial detection and body tracking etc, in addition to the wands they showed.

    In that sense Sony seems to be taking a 'best of both worlds' approach.

    However, Nintendo still has a huge advantage in that their technology - or at least the original wiimote technology - is standard in all their systems. Sony and Microsoft's are peripherals arriving late in the day for this generation of hardware, and the game support will reflect that. I think they're really just gearing up for their next generation of systems, where things like this will be standard.