Wii-Birth of Cool

A Hot Console Revives Virtual Reality

Photo: John Webster

BY Dino DiGiulioPublished Mar 28, 2007

One can only imagine the brainstorming sessions: "Hey, wouldn't it be really cool, if like, we could, like be fully in the computer? Things, you know, would really, like, really change, dude.” For years, virtual reality seemed about that focussed — a conceptual idea that would turn computing into an immersive experience. But what it would look like, how it would work, or how to get there seemed no more than a dream, like hover cars or colonising Mars.

The theorists of virtual reality — which reached its apex of hype along with the first economic techno-boom in the early ‘90s — hypothosised that if reality were meshed with computers, and we could communicate with them in more instinctively human ways, a revolution would occur. Perhaps virtual reality would be an update of "Experience Theatre” from the 1950s, where smells and waterworks helped bring films home to audiences. (Alas, that flopped.) Virtual reality could be the perfect training ground for stressful or dangerous jobs, or even provide an evolutionary advantage. No one knew exactly what would emerge, but it would be a fully immersive computative experience, that much was certain. When the internet superhighway was driving the economy in the 1990s, virtual reality soundbites were plentiful, but after the bubble burst, no self-respecting scientist would dare speak its name. The concept faded from public consciousness and into the deepest recesses of academia.

Now, almost ten years later, the underpowered underdog of videogames, the Nintendo Wii, has come to free us from the cave of harsh reality and take us into the virtual light. Like the way that perspective changed painting, the Wii’s controller, the Wiimote, represents a dramatic dimensional shift. The Wiimote is not simply thumbed like traditional controllers — it’s swung, spun and stabbed. It operates in space with gestures and movements that can be exact duplicates of their real world equivalent. All that videogames and computers have ever known is a two-axis world: up-down and left-right. The Wii has simply, radically introduced a third: forward-back.

Like how a joystick or d-pad controls videogame movement, the computer mouse uses metaphoric movements, gestures somewhat based on real life, a concept that made it possible for nearly anyone to use a computer. Windows, Macintosh and Linux operating systems all use gestures to turn representative actions into computing tasks. When you want to dispose of something, in real life you grab it, carry it and drop it in the trash; in the computing world you click (the grab) and drag (the carry) and drop it in a virtual bin. This gesture-based system quickly defeated its predecessor, language-based computing. If representative action can take us this far, are we on the cusp of natural movements bringing a new reality to computing? Steven Spielberg put forth one possibility in Minority Report; Tom Cruise’s character is seen opening, and tossing aside, computer windows by moving his magic computer gloves. Of course, his monitor was holographic — not currently part of the HD-TV spec sheet.

Science fiction aside, the exciting potential of this new toy tool was not lost on hackers. Within scant short months of the Wii birth, hacks to adapt the controller have been shared through YouTube, and downloads: From a katana brandishing robot copying a nerd's movements, to a computer program that produces light saber noises to match a swing of the Wiimote. But the Wiimote's power isn't all swordplay — the controller has been mapped for flash programming and adapted to drive movement in Second Life, a truly alternate reality (see sidebar).

Oddly, the Wiimote has actually mirrored the academic world’s attempts to reinterpret virtual reality. The University of Buffalo's Virtual Reality Laboratory publicised — about the same time Nintendo demoed the Wii — a fingertip digitiser that will "transfer to the virtual world the meaning and intent of common hand gestures, such as pointing [and] wagging [a] finger... much like a mouse directs the actions of a personal computer, but with greater precision.” Although, their device is able to relay more information, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Wiimote.

On the road from virtual to reality, the Wiimote’s gesture processing ability is the flying buttress on which to build the cathedral of the everyman’s virtual reality. It houses a small amount of memory and a speaker. Each controller has common force feedback (what gamers know as "rumble”), and is an audio device — move over Alan Parsons Project, quadraphonic sound is as easy as playing doubles tennis. When your friend hits the ball, you hear the sound coming from the sim racket rumbling in her hand.

Buried within the handset is an accelerometer, an optical sensor on the top of it, and a set of LEDs to drop on the television. The accelerometer is a miniscule device used to measure the force of gravity on itself, and the one found in the Wiimote measures all three axes while the controller interprets what direction it is held, moved and how much force is used. Couple this with an optical sensor reading the infrared light emanating from the sensor bar on top of your TV, and the controller can tell if it’s in front of you body (picking up the light) or behind (picking up no light) or shades between. All of this communication back and forth is done by the wireless standard bluetooth, giving you a nearly uninhibited range of motion the console can interpret.

Although those heady days of skyrocketing stocks and computer revolutions may have passed, a certain Japanese manufacturer never stopped drinking the Kool-Aid. Nintendo’s new console, in Stepford white, lacks the graphical horsepower of, say, drawing 10,000 ogres swinging 500 different weapons in unique oscillations. But it comes with a controller that can smooth out the simulacra and make us believe that reality can once again be virtual.

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