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Peripheral Vision

E3 is all about accessories this year - but it takes more than clever toys to drive console sales.

With the only console hardware announcement of the week, PSP Go, thoroughly leaked well ahead of the show, this year's E3 has had one obvious focus - peripherals. Each company had plenty of impressive software to show - there's little to choose between Sony and Microsoft on this front, and it would take a particularly churlish gamer to find too much fault even with Nintendo's line-up, which was far more crowd-pleasing than in previous years. But it wasn't software that was the real battleground in this year's briefings - it was accessories.

Blame Rock Band, Wii Fit and perhaps even SingStar. The runaway success of such heavily accessory-dependent games in recent years has overturned decades of standard industry logic which places strict limits on the success of almost any peripheral that's not bundled with the console itself. Suddenly, it seems that every living room is bristling with plastic instruments - and over 15 million households, it transpires, have hopped onto a Wii Fit board to try and shed a few pounds. At this rate, the Wii Fit balance board will surpass the peak installed base of the original Xbox or the GameCube by early next year.

Is it any wonder, then, that E3 teems with peripherals? Plastic gadgets and gizmos are everywhere. At Microsoft's conference alone, the first few presentations introduced us to new Rock Band Beatles instruments and a new skating controller, pimped onstage by Tony Hawk, which looks set to absolutely destroy carpets, polished floors and damage deposits up and down the country when it launches.

The award for the most ridiculous gadget of the show, of course, has to go to Nintendo's Wii Vitality Sensor, a peculiar thimble which, when placed on your finger, relays your pulse back to the console. I could see a more robust version of the hardware working as part of a future, more intensive product in the Wii Fit line; Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata, however, talked at some length about its potential as a relaxation device, hypothesising about games which measure your pulse to help you unwind or even fall asleep. Industry pundits have learned in recent years that betting against Nintendo's crazy ideas isn't a profitable business, but this one feels a little too absurd to work. On past form, it'll probably sell millions anyway.

Stars of the week, however, were a different class of peripheral - motion controllers. Here, Nintendo's game-changing influence on the entire industry has never been more clear, with both Microsoft and Sony devoting huge chunks of their presentations to showing off the technology which, they hope, will leapfrog Nintendo's Wiimote and beat the Kyoto-based firm at its own (hugely profitable) game.

Hundreds of thousands of words have already been expended on attempting to work out the relative advantages and disadvantages of Sony's motion sensor and Microsoft's Project Natal. Although both are squarely aimed at Nintendo's market share, these efforts have many significant differences. Sony has opted for a method which uses controllers; Microsoft's Natal eschews the controller entirely, favouring gestures and voice commands.

Leaving aside arguments over which technology is "better" - arguments largely prosecuted by people who haven't actually used either, and thus utterly pointless - there are a number of important commercial points which need to be made about the two different systems.

Firstly, Sony's copies something more than Nintendo's focus on motion control - it also copies a big chunk of Nintendo's design ethos and business strategy. The Sony approach is distinctly low-tech, relying on repurposing tried and tested technology for its ends. Its visual sensor is an EyeToy camera, which picks up the movements of glowing orbs on the controller - a technology which has been used for motion capture for years; its motion sensor seems likely to be a modified version of the Sixaxis technology which populates every PS3 joypad.

The ultimate effect of the system belies this technical simplicity - it is, by all accounts, accurate, flexible and robust. However, the advantage for Sony is one which companies like Apple and Nintendo have long understood - the technology is old, therefore it is reliable, readily available, well understood and, crucially, cheap.

By contrast, Microsoft's Project Natal is unquestionably cutting edge. Incorporating a camera with a bespoke sensor designed to map the 3D position of people and objects in the room, it's undeniably impressive. Its applications will differ from those of the Sony peripheral - Natal doesn't seem suited to tracking small, precise movements, but its ability to follow the motions of an entire body are unrivalled. In fact, Natal seems likely to live up to the initial description of Wii games - "jumping around your living room" - to an extent greater than any Wii or PS3 game will.

Natal certainly feels more futuristic than Sony's technology. It's got a brand new 3D sensor, and its software needs to calculate what all the complex human bodies in front of it are doing from that sensor. At E3, Natal has been demonstrated in clear, uncluttered areas - in homes, it will have to contend with multiple bodies, furniture, pets and so on. The computational heavy lifting required is significant, especially compared to Sony's task - plotting the precise position of a couple of conveniently glowing orbs. The fact that it works even to the extent that it already does is a testament to the skill of the engineers involved, and it will be fascinating to watch the technology evolve in the coming months and years.

Based on the simple fact of their relative complexity, it's probably fair to say that Sony's system could - in theory - be on the market sooner and at a lower price point than Natal. It's also likely to suffer less early teething problems, which seem inevitable when Natal is confronted with the vast variety of complexity in normal consumers' living rooms.

However, this may be entirely an academic consideration. E3's demos of Sony's motion controller and Natal were only product announcements in the most broad of senses. These systems are far over the horizon - their announcements designed to placate industry watchers and shareholders, to prove that these giants aren't about to let Nintendo run away with all of the family silver. In the short term, they amount to little more than FUD - something for fanboys to argue over, and perhaps to disrupt a little of the Wii's retail dominance, but not an important factor in console sales up to this Christmas and beyond.

Nintendo itself would retort that Wii MotionPlus offers solid performance compared to either system, and will be on the market this month - a point which holds a lot of water. However, it's not MotionPlus which should really worry Microsoft and Sony. It's Wii Sports Resort, and whatever else the firm may have in development for MotionPlus at the moment.

If Microsoft or Sony believes that Nintendo has sold 50 million Wiis off the back of motion controls, they are only partially right. The reality is that those consoles have been sold off the back of Wii Sports and Wii Fit - not to mention Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart for the more traditional audience. MotionPlus will sell not because of its technical capabilities, but because it'll be shoved in a box with Wii Sports Resort - which in turn will probably sell many more Wii consoles, especially in under-exploited territories like Europe.

Sony and Microsoft's motion control efforts are only one part of the puzzle. Each one is pointless without a killer application. People don't buy peripherals for their own sake - they buy games, and pick up the peripherals to play them. Nobody would buy a guitar controller if Guitar Hero didn't appeal to them, or drums if they didn't have a burning desire to play Rock Band. The criticism of Wii Vitality Monitor focuses on the fact that Nintendo didn't show any appealing way for it to work with software - criticism which could just as easily shift focus to Sony's motion controller or Project Natal if compelling software isn't forthcoming. Peripherals may be the story of E3, but without games, they're all just unappealing plastic.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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