25 October, 2009

Motion Control: Going Nowhere

written by Blain Newport on Thursday, October 22, 2009

After writing how all my hopes for the Wii didn't work out, my hopes for Sony and Microsoft's motion controllers are pretty restrained. This article was supposed to be a wish list, but instead became a list of modest hopes and complaints. Perhaps I should have written these last two articles in the opposite order. :\


From the demos I've seen, Microsoft's tech can do broad gestures. The enthusiast press suggested things like throwing grenades with a throwing motion. I think that's feasible.

I also heard someone float the idea of controlling an AI squad with hand gestures, which seems unlikely. If you limit the vocabulary dramatically (maybe two or three easily distinguished gestures) it might work. But that's not much better than pressing a button to bring up a radial menu, plus you've got to take a hand off the controller to do it.

I'm guessing the best uses of Natal will be gimmicks, small things that make playing standard games just a little more physical. Jab forward with your controller to make Master Chief smack a guy with the side of his gun. Kick out with your leg to make your character in Crackdown kick a guy off a rooftop. Make a throwing motion to deploy a ghost trap and raise and lower your foot to open it in a Ghostbusters game.

"But wait", you say. "If you can throw a trap, why can't you throw a pass or a pitch?" Those motions need to be very quick and precise to feel like you're actually doing them.

The Uncanny Motion

A robot builder (Masahiro Mori) discovered a phenomenon he called The Uncanny Valley. He found that robots that look mostly human but not quite are more disturbing than robots that are human-like but still clearly robots.

Motion control is the same way. Either it should be obvious that the computer is simply using your gesture to trigger a canned animation, or it should mimic your motion perfectly, so that you actually feel like what you're doing is happening in the game. Anything in between feels like you're not really in control. The mind picks out the subtle difference, and the experience feels crummy.

I believe the best uses of Natal will stick to simple, broad strokes. It won't change core gaming much at all, just give it a little oomph (and make gamers look a little more silly).

Sony Motion Controller
(which I call a wand)

Sony's solution is far more accurate, but because it relies on the camera being able to see the ball on the end of the wand, can't do something like a pass or a pitch or swinging a bat. You'd have to start the motion where the camera couldn't see.

The wand is good for aiming and manipulating objects in arm's reach. It'll be used for some shooter games and some puzzles in adventure games. It'll also be used in some strategy games, possibly to good effect, but I won't care because I don't like strategy games. :)

The Future

We're looking at first generation devices here. The technology will get better. But the technology isn't really the problem.

The problem is that we're using motion control to play games designed for gamepads. And just as gamepad games ported to the PC don't feel right, so games "ported" to motion controls don't feel right.

The indie space, where design is more fluid, would be the logical place to watch. But the tech's been out for years and to my knowledge we've got virtually nothing of note from the entire indie community. Just tech demos, clones of existing games, and videos of people controlling existing PC games / software with the wiimote.

Am I just a crackpot, or is nobody really trying to do anything novel with this tech? The former seems more likely, I'm afraid.

Too bad I don't believe it.

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