GamesBeat

Top gaming technologies of 2012

2012 saw the continued evolution of three consumer technologies — autostereoscopy, touch-sensing, and motion sense – with direct application in the gaming world.

As an analyst in the tech industry (I do this gaming stuff for fun and occasional profit), I’ve witnessed these burgeoning advancements spread from the fevered dreams of OEM engineers to vertical-market trade shows, the Consumer Electronics Show, and finally E3 and the games industry.

None of these technologies debuted in 2012, but they’ve each matured and become an indispensable part of gaming. For perspective, here’s a link to last year’s article.

Seeing in three dimensions without goofy eye wear

For those who don’t know, “autostereoscopy” is an informal term in the tech industry for glasses-free 3D – “stereoscopy” refers to the process by which combining two offset images gives the illusion of depth (three dimensions), and “auto” denotes the glasses-free component.

Nvidia 3D VisionAutostereoscopy uses a parallax barrier to create 3D images without the need for special glasses. This differs from an active shutter system (like Nvidia 3D Vision), which, through special driver software and glasses that present alternating left- and right-eye images, presents the illusion of depth.

Most consumers are familiar with polarized 3D systems, by far the oldest and most mature of these technologies. These are the sort most often found in theaters and theme parks.

Of the three techniques, autostereoscopy shows the most promise, but the tech is inherently limiting, as the 3DS amply demonstrates. The biggest downside to glasses-free 3D is its highly restrictive viewing angles. In my own experience, it ranges anywhere from 45 degrees to 60 degrees. Move too far in any direction and it breaks the illusion. In that way, the 3DS – and its parent technology – are not dissimilar to a hologram.

When the 3D revival began in recent years, the consumer electronics industry threw all their weight behind this oft-maligned gimmick.  CES became saturated with 3D TVs, 3D movies, 3D projectors, 3D laptops, 3D gaming, and more than enough 3D to turn off consumers — which it did. Whereas the leap from cathode ray tube (CRT) to flat-screen was monumental, 3D wasn’t nearly enough to convince most people to abandon their “obsolete” LED TVs. Most consumers apparently saw it as a stop-gap solution.

OEMs lay the groundwork for autostereoscopy

I saw the foundation of the 3DS’s glasses-free 3D tech at optoelectronics events (essentially, anything having to do with displays and lighting), and a large manufacturer – rhymes with “Carp” – demoed a small form-factor display long before it did (or didn’t … shhhh) become part of a certain Nintendo handheld.

And yet, Nintendo’s autostereoscopic handheld system – which may or may not have utilized display technology from Japanese manufacturer, Sharp – faced an uphill battle due to inherent limitations with the tech, itself.

The 3DS was hobbled from the start – health reports loudly trumpeted claims that 3D was unhealthy for children, while many viewers (myself includes) get headaches and/or nausea from observing stereoscopy for too long. And up to 12 percent of the population suffers from “stereoblindness,” which prevents the individual from seeing 3D images.

But the 3DS’ biggest handicap was its restrictive viewing angles, given that its claim-to-fame was its autostereoscopy technology. On July 28, Nintendo partially mitigated this problem with the release of the 3DS XL, which increased the screen size by more than 90 percent — (top: 4.88 in [124 mm], bottom: 4.18 in [106 mm]). But was it too little, too late?

3DS XL

GamesBeat writer Jasmine Maleficent Rea noted that “The 3DS XL is what the 3DS should have started as.”

But she also addressed the system’s improved capabilities: “A wider viewing area enhances the 3D effect, making some games that were too blurry in 3D a joy to play. For those of us with horrible vision, larger screens are a must, and because of this advancement, the 3DS XL is a great step toward people accepting a ‘gimmicky’ feature as a viable gameplay tool.”

Most consumers still do see 3D as a gimmick, and autostereoscopy is but a fancier gimmick. But for stereoscopy to ever become part of mainstream entertainment, it must shed the clunky glasses and develop into a mature, glasses-free technology.

Pinching, swiping, and styli

Capacitive touch – which underpins your iPhones, Samsung Galaxys, Droids, and countless smartphones – has become more prominent as the platforms supporting it have eked out a bigger piece of the pie. And resistive touch – the passive cousin of capacitive – has done even better for itself, featuring prominently in the Wii U gamepad (not to mention countless commercial applications like ATMs and credit card payment machines).

Resistive touch sensing – which registers pressure via fingers, styli, and other objects – is hardly a new technology. Because of its versatility compared to competing systems (like capacitive touch), resistive touch is popular in commercial applications like ATMs.

Nintendo utilized this relatively primitive touchscreen technology for its DS and 3DS systems, presumably to save a buck and to enable the use of styli.

Apple's iPhoneThe technology behind flinging birds and slicing fruit

Capacitive sensing takes advantage of the human body’s natural tendency to act as a capacitor or store an electrical charge. The release of the iPhone in ’07 – and the subsequent renaissance of iOS and handheld gaming – heralded cap-touch as one of the most important gaming technologies.

In addition, more “hardcore” systems like the PS Vita incorporate an OLED capacitive touchscreen.

We take it for granted, but capacitive touch – and the endemic pinch and swipe motions – has shaped whole genres and an entire generation of game development. The simplicity of capacitive touchscreen controls is attractive to casual gamers with no patience for the relative complexity of “traditional” gaming. This interface system enabled the development of simple, highly additive iOS titles like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.

Imagine, if you will, that Apple relied on traditional control schemes for its iOS games, thereby adding a new layer of difficulty. Games like Jetpack Joyride, Battle Bears, and Tiny Tower – heretofore pick-up-and play experiences — would be exponentially harder and, consequently, less popular in the mainstream.

This cannot be overstated: Handheld gaming owes its wild resurgence and the ensuing paradigm shift to capacitive touch.

But it was resistive touch that stole capacitive’s thunder with the former’s high-profile utility in the Wii U – the touchscreen Wii U gamepad exploits resistive touch-sensing technology.

Your body is the controller

Two years ago, Toshiba unveiled a cool 3D motion gesture control demo at CES, the premier stage for consumer electronics. At the time, it seemed crude and unpolished, but the potential was there (see video below).

Toshiba had no involvement with the Kinect peripheral, but then, Microsoft wasn’t the first multinational consumer corporation to experiment with motion-sense tech (and without a controller, no less – “your body is the controller”).

Several years ago at CES, semiconductor company Analog Devices demoed a six-axes, motion-sense gaming peripheral with similar capabilities as the forthcoming Wii MotionPlus – convenient, since Analog designed the ADXL330 accelerometer for the Wii Remote.

Compared to its contemporaries – and especially the technologies spotlighted in this article — motion sense had a relatively low-key year. But considering its application in the Wii U gamepad, the PS Vita (using similar Sixaxis tech as the PS3 controller), and the fact that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo – via the Kinect, PS Move, and Wii/Wii U – each incorporate motion-sense technology, the tech continues to play a crucial role in the games industry.

Motion-sense also contributed — in large part — to the success of the Wii, which tapped the previously untouched casual gaming market. This miracle technology formed the nexus of quintessential Wii experiences like Wii Sports. “Casual gamers” — no matter how you define them — prefer games with easy learning curves, and motion-sense cuts through the initial obstacle of learning a control scheme.

Indeed, grandmas and senior citizens play Wii Sports because of the game’s utter simplicity. It can therefore be inferred that motion-sense technology led the vanguard of the casual-gaming revolution, which began in ’06 and continues to this day.

None of these technologies – autostereoscopy, touch sensing, or motion sense – launched in 2012, but given their continued evolution, their application in new hardware and gaming peripherals, and the ascension of iOS and casual games, each had a banner year.

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