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The Technology Of Immersion: Highlights From E3 2011

With the festivities of the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo now behind us, it’s time to take a step back and assess the announcements, surprises and forecasts, as well as the implications they’ll have for the next year in gaming. Between the dominance of motion gameplay, 3D, and the endless functionality of the new Nintendo console Wii U, this is the first E3 in a long time where tech announcements took center stage.

Taken individually, the technology on display at this year’s E3 can be dismissed as gimmicky or not particularly “revolutionary.” There’s little inherently entertaining or worthwhile about a peripheral you can swing, a controller with an extra screen, or even a 3D screen—though 3D technology appears to have been embraced across all platforms. New 3D-enabled titles have been announced for PS3, Wii U, 3DS, and Xbox 360. The new Ghost Recon installment on the 360 carries the distinction of being the first Kinect shooter title, in addition to having stereoscopic 3D support. Sony announced a specially bundled PS3-branded 3DTV, which projects two unique 3D images for players with 3D glasses.

Another common thread heard in interviews and conferences this year was talk of ‘removing barriers’ between the player and game world. At their core, what players value most is entertainment and immersion, which, when executed properly, hopefully enable emotional connections with what’s happening onscreen. Developers have compensated for hitting the graphics ceiling of 1080p on current HDTVs by exploring new dimensions for audience interaction.

As an industry, gaming seems to be headed in the direction of the “Playstation 9”—a joke commercial produced by Sony to support the PS2 launch in 2000. In the ad, a young man in the not-so-distant future inhales bubbles from a white orb labeled “PS9.” The bubbles shoot up his neural passageways and flood his senses with the experience of being a crime-fighting superhero who swims underwater with mermaids and wards off medieval jousters and giant squids. Blurring the line between screen and reality has long been the province of advanced graphics, but now has shifted to three-dimensional worlds and movement within them.

SONY
An unexpected show of support for motion gaming from the old guard of hardcore videogame developers came during Sony’s press conference, which focused on their Move motion controller. Ken Levine, creative director at Irrational Games and of Bioshock and System Shock 2, revealed that the studio’s upcoming Bioshock: Infinite would support the Playstation Move, despite publicly dismissing the technology earlier this year. Levine famously said that video games “are the closest humans have to time travel,” and has taken to heart the idea of transporting the player into another world by praising the physical interaction of the Move as breaking down barriers between audience and story.

MICROSOFT
Microsoft’s announcements revolved around the Kinect (launched in late 2010), which uses a motion-tracking camera with voice recognition, allowing the player’s full-body motions and commands to replace the standard dual-shock controller. The most surprising of the new Kinect titles is the port of Minecraft, the architectural sandbox PC indie smash hit of 2010, which speaks to the rising prominence of independent titles released on major gaming consoles in recent years like Limbo, Super Meat Boy, and Flower. Child of Eden, from auteur developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, is another breathtakingly immersive Kinect game—a futuristic rhythm shooter set in space where the pattern of the player’s movements synchs with a symphony of pulsing music.

Microsoft also seems to be addressing the problem of “How will all these Kinect hacks be implemented?” with Kinect Fun Labs—a free download which curates innovative Kinect interactive programs, such as scanning real-world objects, or your face and clothes onto an avatar in the game.

NINTENDO
Reggie Fils-Aime of Nintendo America opened his presentation at the Nintendo press briefing by addressing the need to appease gamers on two fronts—craving the familiar, yet demanding surprise. Nowhere is this more apparent than E3’s touting of HD remakes of beloved classics (Halo 1, the Metal Gear Solid series, the Resident Evil series, Shadows of the Colossus, Ocarina of Time), kickstarting what might very well be an endless loop of developers periodically re-skinning old favorites with updated graphics and the latest engine.

The scene-stealer of the expo was arguably Nintendo’s Wii U—the Wii’s successor—outfitted with a tablet controller featuring a 6.2” screen that’s both touch and motion-sensitive, with a microphone, camera, and speakers to boot. The Wii U console runs 1080p resolutions (catching up to the PS3 and Xbox 360 from the 480p resolution of the original Wii) and supports discs 25GB in size.

The possibilities of this new controller are limitless. Simply put, this technology opens new windows into game worlds. Imagine putting the controller at your feet, teeing up a golf ball on the tablet screen, and swinging a perfect approach shot into the TV in front of you. Or for the next Legend of Zelda title, Link’s inventory being displayed on the touchscreen for the player to quick-select mid-battle with no pausing menus.

What This Means For The Future
E3 2011 seems to indicate the breaking point where casual gaming ceases to be a footnote or forecast for the industry’s future. Since the launch of the Wii in 2006, Nintendo’s bid towards active playing designed for ‘non-gamers’ blew up the market and impacted every part of the industry. All three major console presentations walked a tightrope between addressing devoted early adopters interested near-exclusively in new titles, and appeasing ‘casual gamers’ who bought their first console sometime since 2006 and look for more TV and movie content, exercise peripherals, and family-oriented team activities.

Microsoft also announced new partnerships to support YouTube and expanded streaming TV and movie content, as well as cloud storage support for game saves in the vein of Valve’s Steam Cloud service for the PC. In the race for one box to carry all content in the living room, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are essentially pitching their platforms as alternatives to the cable-box.

This reconciliation between grizzled ancients and fresh technology promisingly points to forthcoming trends, and no doubt a cross-pollination of these design philosophies will lead to further breakthroughs and surprises at the E3s of the future.

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