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Nintendo engineers explain the magic of the Wii U GamePad’s video technology

We want things to just work. That’s the hallmark of an accessible piece of consumer electronics, and it was Nintendo’s challenge when designing the new Wii U GamePad tablet controller.

In an extensive “Iwata Asks” feature, where Nintendo president Satoru Iwata asks his internal Nintendo teams questions about their products, the executive grilled his engineers about the technical aspects of the tablet GamePad, which is the hallmark feature of the Wii U console due out Nov. 18 (base system is $299.99).

When the designers told the engineers that they wanted a controller with a screen that could display video wirelessly from a console, they all knew that latency would be a problem. They didn’t want players to press a button only to have Mario jump a second later, so they got busy inventing new techniques.

“Generally, for a video-compression/decompression system, compression will take place after a single-frame of image data has been put into the integrated circuit,” Nintendo product-development engineer Kuniaki Ito said. “Then it is sent wirelessly and decompressed at the receiving end. The image is sent to the LCD monitor after decompression is finished.”

That’s how something like Netflix works. It uses special imaging codecs to squash the information-rich frames down into something much smaller so they can travel quickly across narrow Internet passageways. The PC, Xbox 360, PS3, or Roku then decodes that compression and re-creates the image to a close approximation of its original, uncompressed form.

“But since that method would cause latency, this time, we thought of a way to take one image and break it down into pieces of smaller images,” Ito continued. “We thought that maybe we could reduce the amount of delay in sending one screen if we dealt in those smaller images from output from the Wii U console’s graphical processing unit.”

That’s a technical way of saying the Wii U compresses data on a much smaller scale and at a more rapid pace.

“I thought it was good from the start,” Nintendo product-development engineer Kenichi Mae said. “If the amount of data which needs to be buffered is to be big, it would minimize latency. You can get by with less memory, and with less power consumption, so it was a good example of a single solution solving multiple issues.”

Ubisoft’s Michel Ancel, who created Rayman, told Nintendolife that Nintendo has successfully reduced the latency of the GamePad down to 0.017 seconds. That’s about the time that a single frame is on the screen in a game running at 60 frames per second. Most gamers won’t notice that tiny amount of lag.

We won’t know for sure if that’s the case until we get our hands on the final retail release of the Wii U and put it through its paces. Keep an eye out for our review.


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