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Are We Headed Toward a Touch and Motion-Based Future?

February 11, 2010

Are We Headed Toward a Touch and Motion-Based Future?
By Louis Bedigian 

Natal and the iPad are paving the way for innovation, but it might not be the game industry that benefits the most this decade.

Last year, you couldn’t escape the Natal hype machine. It was unavoidable: every game and tech-related publication in the world – and several that aren’t technical at all – spoke about the new game “controller,” boasting its potential just as heavily as they did the Wii four years ago. 

But before Natal (which doesn’t even have a price or a release date yet) hits stores, another form of buttons-free device will be released: the iPad. Designed as a larger, vastly superior version of the iPod Touch, the iPad is the consumer-focused tablet that everyone – including iPhone developers – has been dreaming of.

 
Thanks to the iPad, the iPhone version of GTA: Chinatown Wars
will be playable on a much larger screen. (PSP version pictured.)

Unless developers have a few surprises in store, however, most gamers won’t think of it as a true gaming machine. Likewise, Natal may sport the latest and greatest in motion tech, but unless it offers more than a couple great games, Xbox fans will be disappointed.

That being the case, should we really be that excited for either device?

Touch Me Now, Touch Me Later

Just as the iPhone was a test case for tiny touch screens, thousands of applications and simple mini-games, the iPad is also a test case but for something far greater. If the iPad is a huge success (and it almost certainly will be), the costs of touch screens will go down very quickly. This already happened with the iPhone, which launched at $599; the base version of the iPad, which is more than twice the size of the iPhone, will retail for $499.

Why does that matter? Simple: if touch screens are indeed the future of gaming and computer applications, then they have to go beyond the pint-sized medium of the Nintendo DS. Touch screens need to get bigger, be more responsive, and allow several hands and fingers to touch them simultaneously. For that to happen, Apple’s latest attempt at evolving the touch screen must be successful.

Granted, if it turns out to be a piece of crap, then let it flop as it should. But if it’s what people desire I want it to flourish. Because if it does, the next logical branch in the innovation tree will be closer to the technology currently only seen in movies: a highly intuitive touch-based computer. More specifically, a better Mac.

Aside from the cool factor, imagine how much better Photoshop, Final Cut Pro and other creative software would be with a perfect touch screen. If that was possible – if you could actually doctor a photo or edit a movie with your finger tips and leave the mouse behind – then new game applications would be possible as well. Apple would kill two birds with one beautiful stone in a way that makes the rest of the industry say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

 
Natal’s unveiling kicked off with a game that will have players kicking their feet – literally.

I’m Deeply Moved

On the game side, we don’t yet know how much innovation developers can pull out of Natal. We hope they can come up with some fun and creative experiences: sports games (particularly boxing and soccer) are a natural fit. Role-playing games also show great promise, provided that Natal’s facial-recognition technology is everything it’s cracked up to be.

Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Shooters, racing games and platformers aren’t going to work, at least not in the way we currently know them. It might sound cool in theory, but let’s think about this for a minute: where’s the fun in playing a racing game without a wheel? Real cars have wheels. Thus, wheels and game controllers are a necessary component of the experience; otherwise we’ll be playing the racing game equivalent to air guitar. 

The same can be said for shooters: I don’t have any desire to hold my hands together, stick out my index fingers and pretend I’m holding a gun. That will get old really quick. Chances are that isn’t what Microsoft is planning. But without knowing exactly what’s on developers’ minds, I am much more excited about what Natal could lead to.

Imagine the kind of interface you get from an iPhone – quick, simple and easy enough for anyone to use – without having to actually touch a screen. It could revolutionize the way we do everything. Let’s bear in mind that while game consoles were born with joysticks and controllers, PC games started with mice and keyboards, which first brought innovation to non-gaming applications. Shooters, RPGs, simulation and strategy games wound up being the best titles to play using a mouse and keyboard; racing, fighting, sports and adventure games didn’t work out too well.

 
Natal may be good for mini-games, but let’s hope its technology
leads to an interface similar to the fictitious UI in Minority Report.

Natal may be on a similar path. In the first year or two, it may have a hard time weaving its way into every game genre. But if Microsoft or anyone else can transform Natal into a new user interface for more than merely scrolling through menus on the Xbox 360, people (and this includes game developers) will slowly become comfortable with the idea of leaving the mouse behind. They will slowly embrace the idea of using their hands – with no device attached – to do everything. It’s at that moment that we will truly begin to see which video games should be built exclusively for Natal and which games still need a controller.

Gw
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