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Tech Focus: What Next for Motion Control?

Digital Foundry on next-gen options for Move, Kinect and Wii U

The recent release of Kinect on PC demonstrates that Microsoft remains firmly committed to its "hands free" controller, and actually features a key hardware upgrade over the Xbox 360 - the ability to work with players at close range: essential for a desktop environment. It's the first step in what is believed to be an evolution for the Kinect platform, which will see its true "sequel" released alongside, or even as part of, the next-generation Xbox. Whether we like it or not - and a great many core gamers clearly don't - motion control is here to stay.

"Nintendo's Wii was the most disruptive product of the current console generation - to what extent will motion control define the next?"

As the Wii gradually winds down and its next-gen successor is readied for launch, it's important to step back and take a look at the diminutive console's achievements. Described by many rather disparagingly as an overclocked GameCube (although essentially that is what it is), Wii remains the most disruptive video game product of the current console generation. While Sony and Microsoft embarked on a hugely expensive technological arms race, Nintendo merely refined its existing, modestly successful hardware with minor architectural changes and a big boost in clock speed. The real genius of its proposition was, of course, the controller.

As joypads became ever more involved and complex, Nintendo pared its own controller back, reducing the principle form of interface to a remote - and everyone knows how to use a remote, right? The add-on nunchuck controller added the requisite analogue controller required to make core games feasible and the rest, as they say, is history. Wii succeeded because it was immediate, original, enjoyable - and everyone could understand it and join in. Pack-in title Wii Sports fails as a comprehensive game with lots of depth, but as a sampler for motion control, it is a work of genius.

Nintendo's E3 presentation for Wii U demonstrated once more that the controller is the focus, but its established Wiimote isn't the primary interface.

Were it not for the Wii, doubtless there would be no Kinect, and almost certainly no PlayStation Move, but the problem with these products is that they are add-ons to existing consoles that were never designed with motion control in mind, and the range of games that support each of them is limited. Obviously, in contrast, the vast majority of Wii titles (the likes of Wii Fit excepted) are built with the motion controller in mind.

Sony has faced the bigger problem here, despite having arguably the premier product in the field and the most talented internal R&D team who were literally years ahead of their time. To my mind, PlayStation Move is the most flexible, versatile and potentially exciting motion controller of the lot. It does everything the Wiimote is capable of and a whole lot more, and its level of precision is unrivalled. The genius of its design is all down to the SCEA group led by Sony's Doctor Richard Marks - who was experimenting with motion control over a decade ago, and actually exhibited a wand-style controller for PlayStation 2 at ECTS way back in 2001. Marks was even demonstrating Kinect-style cameras in 2004 during a presentation for Stanford University students, over a year before the Xbox 360 even launched.

Unfortunately, as good as Move is, it doesn't define the PlayStation experience in the way that the Wiimote did for Nintendo: its many qualities are never the primary focus for games developers, and while there have been some great implementations in first party titles, Sony never deployed its best development teams on Move-centric products. The approach is somewhat at odds with Microsoft's Kinect launch, consisting of almost exclusive titles and the positioning of Kinect as a new platform.

More Wii U hardware demos - here we see the ways in which Nintendo believes that its existing motion controllers can actually work in concert with the Wii U tablet in multiplayer gameplay.

But Kinect has problems of its own - perhaps not from a commercial perspective where it is generally acknowledged to be the most successful launch in the history of consumer electronics - but certainly in terms of its technical make-up. It performs brilliantly on a set range of functions which make it perfect for dancing and fitness games, but it is dogged by latency and tracking issues, and its reliance on a relatively large play space (something addressed in the PC update) limits where and how it can be played. Microsoft's attempts to justify the device to core gamers also appear to have fallen short: the Kinect support in Forza 4 isn't so impressive, the Ghost Recon: Future Soldier demo at E3 just looked outright bizarre and far more complex than using a standard controller, while its utilisation for voice support seems somewhat superfluous when headsets (with mics) are integrated into every Xbox 360 package.

So, going forward, where does motion control sit within the platform holders' next-gen plans? Nintendo, of course, has already shown its hand. For its debut HD outing, the controller is still the focus, but the company has combined virtually all major forms of input into its tablet-style offering: there's motion control, touch-screen and conventional joypad style controllers too. Wii U is backwards compatible with Wii MotionPlus and other peripherals such as the balance board, but it's that tablet that's the focus - and what will make or break the success of the product.

The challenge facing Nintendo is that the tablet interface is somewhat more complex and not nearly as immediate a proposition as the Wiimote was in its day. But it is clearly a highly versatile proposition and it's up to the company and third party publishers to transform some of the various Wii U concept work we saw demonstrated at last year's E3 into exciting, fresh and original gameplay.

"Kinect is a work-in-progress; marketed as a standalone platform and one that will expand and evolve alongside the Xbox brand."

While motion control strategy is still up in the air with Microsoft's next-gen hardware, details and rumours are starting to emerge. Unsubstantiated stories emerged last week that the console itself will fit into a tablet-style controller, but this is entirely at odds with basic logic - cramming next-gen silicon into a tablet aimed at a price-conscious mainstream audience simply isn't a viable proposition, for all the same reasons (and then some) that those wishing for a true next-gen leap for Wii U's graphical capabilities are likely to be disappointed.

Worthy of far more consideration are the reports that Kinect will ship as standard as part of the next-gen Xbox, perhaps in two SKUs: the first, a set-top box, the second a fully fledged core-gamer orientated console. These rumours carry considerably more weight bearing in mind that Microsoft apparently held a consultation with developers on the form and function of Kinect 2 at an event hosted at Disneyland in Los Angeles after E3 last year, and appears almost obvious bearing in mind that the platform holder has worked hard in establishing Kinect as a standalone platform, one that will expand and evolve alongside the Xbox brand.

In this video from a 2004 presentation, we see Sony's Richard Marks demonstrating Wiimote style controls... for the PS2. Marks actually had motion control demos on display at ECTS 2001 - that's how far ahead of the curve Sony's research teams have been. But will this kind of forward thinking translate into an actual successor to the classic dual shock?

In terms of how Microsoft can evolve the hardware, it doesn't take a genius to evaluate the current system's limitations and suggest some alternatives in overcoming them. Latency is one of the major issues that holds back the kinds of games in which Kinect can be utilised.

Developers have made some strides in overcoming this issue, firstly by devising their own ways of utilising the z-cam's depth data, specifically when it comes to re-mapping it onto in-game characters. It's generally believed that Microsoft's own libraries only re-map the human form scanned by Kinect onto its own Avatars using a computationally expensive skeletal model, and developers have adopted their own tech to do the same job more quickly, at the expense of the kind of flexibility Microsoft's libraries offer. But the real solution here will be hardware-based, and that means binning off the USB interface for something faster and with more bandwidth on tap. Resolving this issue also addresses another limitation - the ability to stream real-time video with Kinect data simultaneously - something that the PC version has no problem with owing to a superior USB 2.0 spec implementation.

The second issue is one of precision. In the past couple of years, various claims have been made with regards the detail the Kinect cameras are able to resolve, in particular when it comes to the hands and fingers. Kinect titles have concentrated mostly on major body movement, and precise movements with the hands and fingers have not been possible to track effectively - hence the overly strange Ghost Recon performance we saw at the Microsoft E3 presser last year. By the time the next-gen comes around, upgrading to higher precision cameras, perhaps even with a 60Hz refresh, should be possible.

Perhaps the most exciting element behind a bundled Kinect is the fact that developers can address the hardware knowing that everyone owns it - utilisation of functionality should hopefully be a little more fully featured than some of the implementations we've seen in Xbox 360 core titles, and hybrid control systems using both pad and camera could be intriguing. A hefty reliance on Kinect tech would make streaming gameplay via Cloud a lot more difficult though, and it's widely believed that Microsoft is investigating online streaming - beaming inputs (even motion controllers) over the internet would be simple enough, but the upstream bandwidth just isn't there to sustain two camera feeds and the audio from a multi-array mix.

So if Nintendo has revealed its hand and we can make a lot of educated guesses about where Microsoft is headed, where does that leave Sony? Of all the platform holders, very little indeed is known about the successor to PlayStation 3, least of all the technical make-up of its control system. But of the three major console-makers, historically it has been the most conservative, effectively sitting upon the innovations brought forth by Dr Richard Marks' team, iterations of which have gone on to perform so well for Sony's competitors. Will we once again see the standard dual shock bundled with its next console, a reworked PlayStation Move, or something all-new from Marks' labs? I can't wait to find out...

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Latest comments (21)

Like any early tech ther are bugs to be worked out and new R&D to include in future builds. We are only at the early stages of a technology that is really just a rapid prototype of its future intent.

If you think that the current crop of fitness games (that really are just a proof of concept) are cool then just wait until you are leaping buildings in a single bound in Superman The Game, fighting real time with XBOX Live friends in a UFC tournament environment, or crouching in the jungles of Vietnam ready to pounce and knife an enemy in COD.

The content and app possibilities when integrated into the living room STB and digital home are even more intriguing. The voice/motion controlled home applications are endless.
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Colin Payne game designer; artist 9 years ago
What "whole lot more" does the Move do over Wii motion +. Other than glow that is. And not include IR.
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Tony Johns9 years ago
The Wii Motion Plus allowed the original Wii motes to at least step up more better than the PS Move controls. But still most Wii games can be used without Wii Motion Plus that not many people ever noticed.

Oh, and also the Wii Motion Plus drains batteries more faster than the normal Wii mote.

At least with the Wii's Classic Controller is way better to conserve battery power in that area.
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Show all comments (21)
Rodney Smith Developer 9 years ago
Is there one game worth buying a kinect for? It all smells of FAD
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Graeme Quantrill Mobile App Developer 9 years ago
@Colin - I was wondering the same thing in all honesty. To me, they're both wands with varying degrees of accuracy but ultimately do exactly the same job. Kinect on the other hand is completely different in that respect.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
I never wanted motion controls... even after playing a few games with them, my thoughts still havent changed. I didnt play metroid prime 3 cause of it.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
Rick, give yourself a few minutes to get accustomed to it. It turns out to be quite a enjoyably experience once you've grasped the nuances. And you don't have to act like the fools in those promo videos making massive, sweeping gestures. Just rest your hands like normal and make small motions...same results. MP3 is too good of a game to ignore. Or get the MP Trilogy.

What's next for Sony on the motion front? I suspect they'll simply add Move and PS Eye to the PS4 by default. Not sure if they'll enhance the capabilities of them much though.
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Jonathan Tilbrook Studying Games Design, University of Lincoln9 years ago
I recently purchased the ageing SSX Blur for 6 - which is SSX3 but purely motion controlled. It's essentially unplayable and kind of closed the book for me on motion controls.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.9 years ago
If that was your first motion controlled game, I don't blame you. If seasoned Wii gamers cringe at that title.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd9 years ago
There are plenty of good uses for motion controls, but it can never be your only control method and work effectively. Move, btw, does not work any better than Wii Motion Plus in accuracy and the swapped IR ball and camera actually make it significantly worse for aiming (it requires constant calibration). The Wiimote with Wii Motion Plus is excellent if you have good dexterity yourself, and absolutely enhanced Skyward Sword and the Metroid Prime Trilogy, greatly improving them. On the downside it provides horrible camera control options, greatly damaging many traditional games.

Kinect has some great uses, but it's also the ideal example of how motion controls can go wrong without a good integrated traditional control set-up (ala the Wiimote and Nunchuk). Kinect is nearly useless outside of voice navigation of menus and exercise and dance games. In fact even general voice commands are awfully poor in Kinect if you have any sound coming out of your speakers. Ever tried to use voice to pause a Netflix movie or use squad commands in the Mass Effect 3 demo? They don't work unless you're wearing head phones or have volume very low. Kinect is a poor solution in an industry that requires multiple controls to be integrated to provide a wide range of experiences. Hopefully Wii U shows us something new again.
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Tin Katavic Studying MSc-Games Technology, University of Abertay Dundee9 years ago
Every contol method in games has its place these days.
For FPS and RTS? Nothing beats a mouse.
For games like Mortal Kombat or God of War? Game pad is the way to go.
Racing? Wheel.
Flying? Joystick.

Same is for touchscreen and motion control.

The problem of motion control is that right now its way too limited in inputs. Remeber SW:Force Unleashed (I think) where the motion control made the lightsabre fun to use but you were not able to move? Imagine playing WoW with motion control!
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 years ago
Look at the mouse beneath your hand. It picks up tiny movements and requires minimal muscle movement to click a button. You do not need to shift around a brick across a 3x3m area.

The Kinect right now is a novelty toy for kids and people in "kid mode". The motions you need to execute in order to get a few bits of control information into the device are just not efficient enough. It is as far away from the tiny muscle movements of a mouse/joypad as humanly possible, or rather bearable.

Motion controls will only be an addition to serious mainstream input schemes, when they can handle the speed of the fastest sign language speakers and have the precision of a touch screen from across the room.
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Tyler Moore Game Designer & Unity Developer 9 years ago
I just really hope that Microsoft doesn't mandate that all developers put some kind of kinect-friendly feature into their games.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Colin, Graeme, Nicholas, the Sony controller is far more precise and playable than a Wii controller even with Motion Plus. Check out Tumble for an example of a game that wouldn't work on any (current) controller other than the Move. Comparing the precision with that of Boom Blox is instructive.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd9 years ago
@ Curt Boom Blox is not a Motion Plus game, and if you want to compare them you should try Sports Champions vs Wii Sports Resort and Zelda or even better Dead Space: Extraction on both systems. You'll find aiming is significantly less precise and requires frequent calibration, and both are equally capable of 1:1 motion controls (also with calibration). Not sure why you thought Boom Blox was an apt comparison.
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Andrew Clayton QA Weapons Tester, Electronic Arts9 years ago
Sometimes I feel like the only one that was excited to see the Ghost Recon: Future Soldier E3 demo. I didn't see the kinect stuff as odd or awkward, I saw it as a huge leap in the right direction. Yes, right now Kinect is only used for weapon editing and testing, but refining those two elements (especially the latter) could lead to some awesome elements.

Personally, I've always seen the future of FPS being in a controller/kinect hybrid, especially if the controller was some sort of gun-like peripheral. Instead of using buttons to throw grenades, make a grenade throwing motion. Instead of buttons for switching weapons, point your weapon to the ground and then back at the screen. Motion could be controlled by the weapon (to prevent forced rail-shooters), etc.
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Tin Katavic Studying MSc-Games Technology, University of Abertay Dundee9 years ago
@Andrew Clayton And there is the problem. If you control the weapon with the peripheral how do you control the movement and camera?

Just think of the movement in a FPS - your mouse stears your movement, aims (and shoots) your weapons, changes weapons (scroll), lets you look around 360 degrees and you have to combine it with your keyboard to go forward, backward, strafe, jump, crouch, use items etc.

At a given moment you can be giving up to 4 commands (jump, while running forward, and fire your weapon in a sweeping arc of 180) and I cant even begin to IMAGINE how you would do that with a motion controler.
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Colin Payne game designer; artist 9 years ago
@Tin you don't have to imagine it. you just have to play Metroid Prime 3 or Red Steel 2. Both work absolutely magnificently and have greatly reduced my enjoyment of twin stick FPS.

@Curt. I don't find any noticeable sensitivity difference between Move and Motion +, but for many applications I really miss the IR when I use Move, which I find laggy, constantly in need of calibration, and irritatingly glowy.

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Reilly Davis9 years ago
all this motion stuff has been around since the first webcams, its nothing new the only place that has real use is actual virtual reality, which takes a pretty big chunk of processing power to run so more then likely wont run on consoles, unless they really step it up and make consoles better then pc's
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Brian Smith Artist 9 years ago
It's all being over-used at the minute. In the case of kinect even the decent implementations suffer by the fact that folk don't want to be doing it for long periods, and by long periods I mean 15 minutes. knowing this, developers have quite rightly avoided designs that require more endurance and that limits it more than any of it's technical drawbacks, of which there are more than a few.

For me something like kinect would have been worth it just for gesture and speech control of your media box. Unfortunately even that is just too unrefined to consider a real alternative. Neither speech or gesture control work well enough on their own to be singularly reliant upon. The marriage of the two have the potential to be the solution but they can clash with each other and quickly, the flaws of both start to show with unwanted selections happening and voice commands being endlessly repeated and shouted at your console.

It needs to become a less all in concept. People still want to sit down and play a game without spinning their arms around and jumping around all the time. The Wii U controller had me quite excited in that respect, although I'm prepared for a let down on their console power as usual.
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Donald Dalley Freelance writer 9 years ago
Except for Richard Leadbetter being moderately excited about the Move, none of you expressed much thought or interest in it, except in comparison to the other two devices, so I don't imagine any of you will be supporting it, either.
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