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GamePad Wii U

Magnets aren’t just those things that make the Insane Clown Posse believe in miracles anymore — a bunch of really smart people used the electron-sharing materials to improve the motion controls in Nintendo’s Wii U GamePad.

In a lab in Santa Rosa, Calif., PNI Sensor Corporation developed a magnetic sensor for Nintendo’s new controller that provided the device with a nine-axis understanding of its orientation. Put simply, the GamePad is one of the best motion-control devices on the market.

“At PNI, we specialize in geomagnetic sensors, and our sensors have a higher resolution — about 15 times higher resolution — than what is commonly in something like cell phones,” PNI chief executive Becky Oh told GamesBeat. “The performance itself is what allowed us to be built into Nintendo’s [Wii U GamePad].”

That “higher resolution” refers to the sensor’s ability to inform the Wii U hardware of the controller’s position in 3D space. The magnetic sensors are similar to what is in something like the iPhone, but since the GamePad is significantly bigger, PNI had the room to use larger materials more sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field.

“Nintendo was looking for something that had the means to do better motion tracking,” said Oh. “They did a lot of different testing in many different areas so that if they did do a nine-axis tracking, it would work in all different situations.”

The nine-axis refers to the three different sensors inside the controller that each track the X, Y, and Z axes. The Wii U, like the iPhone 5, uses a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and PNI’s magnetic sensor. Three devices track the same three axes for nine-axis control. The first PlayStation 3 controller, the Sixaxis, only tracked using a gyroscope and an accelerometer.

A gyroscope measures orientation based on gravity. An accelerometer measures motion based on acceleration and velocity.

“[The gyroscope and accelerometer] are good at tracking relativistic change,” said Oh. “But it doesn’t tell you absolutely where you’re pointing and where the pointer is. What the magnetic sensor does is use the Earth’s magnetic field as a reference. It can always guide [the GamePad] back to what the absolute position is.”

This would eliminate the Wii remote’s shaky cursor. Oh promises that her company’s technology is immune to the kinds of magnetic interference that caused those issues in the previous generation of motion sensors.

“I think games such as first-person shooters, driving games, or some type of flying game would be good candidates for this type of technology,” Oh said. “Sony’s Sharpshooter [Move controller peripheral] did something like this, but when we played with it, we saw it was not accurately tracking. There was both latency and inaccuracy. In that case, hardcore gamers would go back to using a joystick or game controllers. But if you had a very accurate way with no latency or very little latency to use the gun to point what you’re shooting — I think that does change the way the game is played.”

That is likely just a technologist hoping to fit what gamers want to work with her device, but she admits that developers will have to change the games to optimize them for the GamePad and the nine-axis control.

Of course, the Wii U still works with the old Wii remotes that only have six-axis control and use an infrared sensor to determine a point of reference. If developers do continue to make motion games, maybe they will focus their efforts on the GamePad and force Nintendo to release an updated version of the candy-bar-shaped controller device.

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