Until recently, the most innovative game controllers have mostly been the domain of Video Arcades. Motorbikes that pull from side to side, Car simulators, flight-sim capsules, and Point’n'shoot guns to name a few.
Some of these had filtered over into the home environment. Joysticks, Steering wheels and guns could be bought for most home consoles and PC’s. In recent years however, the real driver in innovation has come from outside the Video Arcade, and has instead come from the home console developers.
One of the notable drivers of development has been Nintendo, which has in the last few years has offered the most innovative ways of interacting with games. The DS portable touch screen, and to the motion sensitive WiiMote for Nintendo Wii..
Sony has followed with a somewhat more subtle improvement to it’s Playstation controller, the ”Sixaxis” motion sensitive controller.
While Microsoft has not yet emulated this motion-sensitive functionality for it’s Xbox 360 controller, it will soon raise the bar for it’s competitors with the announcement of project natal, a new motion sensor technology that will allow gamers to control games through body movements, without the need to have any controller in hand.
Another sometimes overlooked innovation to the world of game controllers are the various rock band instruments that interact with gaming consoles. These includes guitars, drums and microphones.
So it is easy to see that this is an area of fierce competition, with companies trying to offer the most fun and interactive ways of entertaining their customers. But what will the future of gaming look like? What are some of the technologies either in development or available today that might find their way into the mainstream for gamers young and old?
One of the things holding back the realism of a virtual reality environment is that the player in the real world is still just standing still. There is still a feeling of not completely being there in the game world. The obvious solution to this has been the use of a treadmill to allow a players’ walking and running movements to be mirrored in the virtual environment.
While the standard treadmill might add some extra realism to the game, it cannot represent the 3 dimensional aspect of a game world, because it moves only in one direction. So the future will most likely see more advances in the Omni-directional Treadmill (ODT), which is a type of treadmill that allows movement in all directions. When these are used to interface with a game, the player will get a much more realistic experience in the virtual world. It would be especially useful for FPS and Adventure/RPG games. For more information on the ODT, see this Wikipedia Article. Possible improvements would be force sensors to allow for jumping, and elevation control.
The obvious limitation to the treadmill’s widespread use might be it’s size and expense. While it might be something easily found in a Video Arcade, the home user would need to make a significant investment into this particular component.
Another advancement to enhance virtual realism that will surely become mainstream is advanced sensory feedback. Already popular is the use of vibration in controllers that provide simple feedback in all kinds of situations. An example of the next step is the use of force feedback gloves or suits, which allows not only direct control of body and hand movements, but more importantly provides a pressure or electrical feedback to the user, giving them the impression of actually touching and feeling virtual objects. Click here to see an example of a feedback vest. Going beyond simple stimulation feedback, the use of intelligent full arm and body restraint could further advance the realism, by simulating weight and shock.
A suit alone may not have much of a place in the future, where the capture of general arm movements (which can be done with cameras without a suit) seems to have more relevance to the games people play than intricate movements of fingers and limbs. So the gaming suit will only become popular where people demand a greater sensory interface with the virtual worlds in which they play.
One more exciting upcoming development in the game peripherals scene are controllers that use a player’s thoughts to control a game. Emotiv Systems has released a device that can be worn on the player’s head which will convert brainwave patterns into computer signals that can be interpreted by games. With the advancement of this technology, the user will have a much more intimate interface with the game environment.
To achieve a full immersion mind control like that found in a movie like the Matrix, the body would first have to be put in a state of paralysis similar to that experienced while we dream. Then the mind scanner would have to have a high enough resolution to read and interpret the separate signals that we use for movement.
Considering Emotiv’s device is already on the market for about US$200, it is only a matter of time for the economies of scale to reduce the price for the average user before this kind of game controller becomes a standard part of the gamer’s toolkit.
The future of game controllers might seem to be an easy bet: Games controlled by our minds as we all plug into the Matrix, a virtual world where we feel the heat of the sun on our faces and smell the flowers in the meadows.
But what do we really want out of our games? We play games as a social form of entertainment, for the hands on enjoyment, for the adrenaline rush, for a challenging puzzle, for an escape from reality and much more. It is this plurality of preferences that will determine the controllers of the future. While some of us might be plugged into the Matrix, others might well be running on a smart treadmill, or swinging a virtual racket for some exercise. There may even be some who will never want to let go of the simple little control pad.