Since the inception of video games, various attempts have been made to revolutionize the way in which gamers interact with their chosen medium. Game controllers have been in a constant state of development—an extra button tacked on here, an analog stick planted there. Despite the fact that controllers, mice, and keyboards are pretty effective human interface devices, it seems that every five years or so a company will decide that they're just way too complicated, at which point they roll out the latest in motion-sensing technology.
Most past attempts at motion-sensing controllers have been hopeless failures. (Does anyone remember the Sega Activator?) But the recent Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Kinect, and—to a lesser extent—Playstation Move have been huge financial successes, instrumental in popularizing motion sensor–based gaming, at least as far as causal players are concerned.
Well, the current console generation is drawing to a close (regardless of what Microsoft and Sony tell us), so we're preparing ourselves for the next wave of "innovations" in game controller technology. During the CES Unveiled and Digital Experience events, I was able to view and experience hands-on demos with three human interface technologies that could very well be the next big thing in gaming.
Extreme Reality sounds pretty good on paper: It's essentially a low-rent Kinect, utilizing a software application. Extreme Reality turns any device with a 2D camera into what the company calls "a full-body motion-controlled gaming system." So if you like the idea of Kinect but perhaps lack the finances necessary to purchase an Xbox, Kinect controller, and game library, Extreme Reality could be the solution you've been looking for... as long as you don't expect to be wowed by its third party support.
The current selection of games could be generously described as "slim," and—like the selections available for the actual Kinect—the games are all casual. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it may turn off hardcore gamers. As is often the case with such things, Extreme Reality's success is dependent on winning over the third party support it currently lacks.
Tobii, a company that has been developing eye-tracking human interface technology since 2011, officially announced the Tobii REX at this year's CES Unveiled. Tobii REX is the first commercially available "gaze" based peripheral. While a developer version has been released, consumers will only be able to get their hands on the Tobii REX later this spring.
I got a chance to briefly demo the device, and came away mildly impressed with what I saw. The Tobii REX allows the user to interact with a PC by picking up eye movements, so in a sense the user's "gaze" controls the cursor. It was quick to calibrate, and after just a few seconds I was able to open applications and folders simply by looking at them... oh, and by clicking the left mouse button.
Currently, the Tobii Rex still requires input beyond visual commands: once you have focused your view on a folder or other icon, you still need to click the mouse to interact with it. This process seemed a bit clumsy at first, but after a few minutes I could see how it could become more intuitive over time. I was only able to demo a variation of Asteroids; while it was fun blowing up giant rocks with a glare, I can’t help but feel that this demo was a missed opportunity.
My eyes began to strain after only a few moments of playing—the game was pretty fast-paced—and I came away feeling that the Tobii REX seems better suited to games that move at a more leisurely rate. I would be interested to see the how the device handles an RTS or point-and-click adventure game, for instance. Hopefully a developer will rise to the challenge; in the meantime, I'll eagerly (and I admit to potentially being overly optimistic) await The Walking Dead - Tobii edition.
Chances are that if you follow video games at all, then you're familiar with the Oculus Rift—a Kickstarter darling that raised over $2 million during its funding drive. Dev kits are expected to ship in March 2013, with a consumer version scheduled for some undetermined point in the future.
The Oculus Rift is currently in prototype form, and represents the world's first (according to the developers) truly immersive and relatively affordable VR gaming headset. The representatives I spoke to explained that the company was able to keep costs down by making use of various smartphone technologies in its construction. The prototype I saw was built using accelerometers, gyroscopes, and gravimeters scavenged from smartphone parts. Now, the device may look like an unused prop from Doctor Who in its current form, but the developers told me that, appearances aside, the Oculus Rift is an amazing piece of tech.
Well, after playing the demo, I have to say that I agree: using the Oculus Rift is an incredibly immersive experience. The demo involved a simple yet beautifully realized environment ripe for exploration. The Oculus felt pretty comfortable––though I was only wearing it for a limited time–and exhibited very little noticeable latency. I did notice a bit of crosstalk around the edges of what we can best describe as its screens. The game environment also suffered from occasional clipping, but we can't say for certain whether that was a result of the actual device or the software.
The Oculus Rift currently only supports 1280 x 800 pixel resolution (640 x 800 pixels per screen), with the developers promising to double that within the year. The rig is currently optimized for the Unreal 3 engine (the developers promise version 4 support post-release) and ID Tech 5. Unlike the Extreme Reality and Tobii devices, the Oculus Rift will launch with some solid third party support, including compatible versions of Doom 3 BFG Edition and Hawken.
Today, there are plenty of exciting developments happening in the realm of video game interfaces, but with the spotty history of successful peripherals and "indie" systems, it'll be interesting to see how far they can go. We look forward to seeing whether any of these particular technologies can become more than just proof-of-concepts going forward.