Back in June, Nintendo finally announced the long-expected Wii U to a fairly... mixed response. A key element of the announcement was a video which demonstrated several potential use-cases for the Wii U's new controller.
And yes: a lot of these use-cases were deliberately contrived for the demo reel. And yes: the sequence may well have been shortened (to use Apple's standard iPhone advert disclaimer). But still: what do they tell us about what the Wii U can and can't do?
Well, there's a few interesting nuggets tucked away behind the smoke and mirrors...
[as far as I'm aware, there's still minimal hands-on information for the Wii U, so a lot of what follows is extrapolation and speculation - and there's a chance that there will be physical changes to the hardware, to boot. If there's evidence that I've gotten something completely wrong, please let me know!]
Scene #1: Switch from TV to the new controller
[A door opens, to show someone playing a platformer game on the TV. The TV channel is changed; the player puts down a Wiimote and picks up the Wii U Controller, which has the game showing on it's display. The player then continues play on the Wii U Controller]
Unfortunately, this is one of the more contrived examples: the player doesn't need to switch on the Wii U Controller (henceforth referred to as the WUC), nor do they pause the game before switching over.
However, it seems unlikely that the WUC's display can be left switched on when not in active use: the large display and "streaming video" network traffic would rapidly drain the battery. This therefore begs the question: how long does it take to switchover from the TV to the WUC?
There's also a secondary question: the player moved from the Wiimote to the WUC: how many games have a control-system layout which is suitable for this sort of transition? Traditional "d-pad + buttons" games should be fine, but virtually the entire Wii back-catalog and a lot of the demonstrated games make at least some use of the Wiimote's pointing capabilities and and it's gyroscopic tilt/motion sensors.
The touchscreen is reported to be resistive rather than capacitive (i.e. it does not support multitouch), which limits it's ability to emulate the Wiimote's aiming capabilities - the tilt/orientation of the Wiimote is a significant factor in some games. Also, given the size of the device, it's likely to be difficult to mix use of the touchscreen with the phsyical controls, especially for games which involve use of the Wiimote/Nunchuck combination.
Going the other way, the WUC may work reasonably well with games which use the Wiimote purely as a pointing device: Wikipedia indicates that the WUC has a "sensor strip", which I'd assume to be a pair of infra-red transmitters as per the Wii's Motion Bar. However, there are still some potential issues with this use-case - most notably, the fact that the player will need distance to wave the Wiimote while also needing to keep the display close enough for details to be visible.
Further, images of the WUC indicate that it's not designed to be used in a freestanding position: the underside is curved except for a small area in the middle where the charger port is and there doesn't appear to be a swing-out stand to support it. It's therefore likely to only be usable when sat in it's charging dock (sadly, as far as I'm aware, no pictures of this have been released) or when sat on a flat, stable surface
Finally: how will audio transfers work? For most single-player use-cases (i.e. when the TV is switched on), streaming audio to the WUC may actually have a negative impact on the play experience - not only will the audio quality not be as good due to the smaller speakers, but it's a further drain on battery life and there may be a sync issue between the TV and WUC audio. Therefore, I'd expect the WUC to have audio disabled by default: if the main display is showing something else, the player will either have to go without audio or manually enable the audio and plug in some headphones, further adding to the transfer time/effort overheads.
Scene #2: Draw on the New controller
[A highly detailed picture of Link is drawn on the WUC, via a standard "DS" stylus]
Presumably, the main purpose of this scene was to demonstrate the fact that the WUC includes a touchscreen; an art package is a nice value-add feature (and useful for distracting small children), but hardly a console-seller.
However, there's surprisingly little else which can be gathered from this scene: it's impossible to tell if the touchscreen is pressure sensitive and the only feature demonstrated for the drawing application is the ability to zoom; there isn't a single view of the app's drawing tools or user interface.
Scene #3: Play only on the New controller
[The WUC is laid onto a table and two people take it in turn to play Go. When the game is finished, the WUC is tilted to "remove" the pieces so that a new game can be played]
This scene essentially promotes the use of the WUC for turn-based board-games. However, it also implicitly highlights a few potential issues:
There's also an issue which this scene deliberately obscures: the top-back of the WUC has a ridge running along it, into which the triggers are built. This means that it's not possible to lay the WUC flat onto the table: the screen will actually be at a slight angle to the table. This isn't a huge issue from an ergonomic viewpoint - if anything, it's better for single-player use, but it is likely to be a bit annoying when sitting to one side of the WUC - people may well decide to stick a book or DVD case under the WUC while playing.
Scene #4: Use Motion to control with the New Controller
[A baseball game is displayed on the TV: the player holds up the WUC, which appears to have an overlay of the TV-display on it. The player chooses the destination for the pitch and then tracks the ball's arc through the air with the WUC in an attempt to catch it]
This scene looks pretty exciting and novel, but it's another scene which makes use of some serious smoke-and-mirrors. The clip strongly implies that the WUC display is an AR-style overlay atop the TV display, but if you look closely, it's not: the WUC's display is different to the display on the TV. More, the back of the WUC does not appear to have any sensors on it - the camera is forward facing, as is the sensor strip.
There is therefore no way to use the WUC as an AR device: you could play this minigame just as well when facing away from the TV or while the WUC was laid flat on a table.
Similarly, the ball-catching minigame presumably makes use of the WUC's accelerometer and gyroscopes. However, the screen is very small for this sort of rapid-tracking motion and for this sort of sports-title, there's a risk of player disorientation when the screen switches from a forward-view to an upwards view.
Scene #5: Get new Views with the new Controller
[The WUC is laid flat on the floor; the display switches to a view of a golf-ball in sand. The player stands atop the WUC and takes a swing with the Wiimote; a puff of sand appears on the TV as the ball soars onto the green]
The smoke is getting thicker with this scene: the WUC is laid flat on the floor (which isn't possible without support, as per scene #3) and is laid side-on to the TV; as per Scene #4, there are no sensors on the back or side of the WUC, so this positioning is of psychological benefit only.
However, on a brighter note: the fact that the WUC has a sensor strip built into it means that it could be possible to offer better tracking of wiimote-swings. Unfortunately, the number of "arm-swinging" game-scenarios is quite low: the only ones which come immediately to mind are golf, bowling and cricket.
All told, this scene feels more like a marketing gimmick than a genuinely useful gameplay option.
Scene #6: Stay Fit with the New Controller
[The player walks towards the Wii Balance Board, carrying the WUC. She stands on the board and views her status on the WUC]
Really, all this scene is doing is demonstrating that the Wii U is compatible with the Balance Board: all the WUC is doing is acting as a replacement for the TV. And given that using the Balance Board involves significant physical movement, holding the WUC is liable to be unergonomic; it also eliminates certain game-types (e.g. Just-Dance style arm-waving) and increases the risk of the WUC being dropped and damaged...
Scene #7: Take Aim with the New Controller
[A plastic peripheral similar to the Wii Zapper is shown: the wiimote and nunchuck slot into their traditional places, while the WUC sits on top, acting as a scope/secondary display. The player uses the WUC's zoomed-in scope view to find on-screen targets]
This is a scene without any smoke and mirrors (give or take the fact that the game appears to zoom in without any controls being touched) - this is as close as the Wii U gets to an AR-style system.
But it still raises some problematic questions. The Wii U Zapper (henceforth the WUZ) needs to be held with both hands and looks top-heavy; there could also be a concern with how well attached the WUC is to the rest of the assembly. And the wide plastic frame of the WUC means that the "sniper scope" obscures a significant portion of the TV screen.
The biggest problem is that this is a fairly limited use-case: while there's some potential for this setup in FPS games (e.g. Luigi's Mansion comes to mind), it's likely to only be used for light-gun games. That said, I'd love to see a sequel to HOTD: Overkill...
Scene #8: Play across the new controller and Your TV
[The WUC is held flat on the player's left palm, similar to a waiter's tray. Targets appear on the TV screen and the player "flicks" shuriken from the WUC to the TV]
Sadly, the smoke and mirrors are fully back for this one. As per Scene #3 and #5, there's no way for the WUC to identify it's position relative to the TV: it's therefore not possible to aim the shuriken at specific on-screen targets: in this use-case the shuriken launch from a fixed position on-screen and the WUC is literally being used as a single-button device.
That said, it should be possibly to track the path taken across the touchscreen and use this information to alter the gameplay - putting curves into the shuriken's flight, for example...
Scene #9: Make Video Calls with your new Controller
[a two-way video-call is displayed on the WUC]
There's not much to say about this one: video-call technology has been around for decades and over the last few years, netbooks and mobile phones have offered a similar level of functionality. In many ways, this feels like a marketing gimmick: I'm struggling to think of non-gimmick ways of integrating a forward-facing camera into a video game and presumably the video-conferencing system will only work with other Wii U consoles and interest in other proprietary video-conferencing systems (e.g. Apple's Facetime) has been low.
Scene #10: Browse with the New Controller
[the TV displays a web-page; the user holds up the WUC; upon which is displayed a zoomed-in view of the web-page; moving the WUC around changes the position of the focus. The user then rotates the WUC and uses it as a scrollbar for the TV display]
This scene is interesting, as it appears to show that the WUC has full AR capabilities, thereby contradicting the stance I've taken above. But in my defence: the scrolling is suspiciously smooth (the entire scene looks to have been touched up with CGI); it'd be possible to at least partially emulate this functionality by reading the accelerometers and I still don't see any IR receivers on the back of the WUC!
And to top it all off, this is very much a gimmick use-case: while there's a definite case to be made for using the WUC as a giant touchpad, holding the WUC flat to the screen is distinctly unergonomic, causes the same "obscuring" problems as per Scene #7 and generally feels somewhat pointless...
Scene #11: Share from the New Controller to the TV
[people chat on a sofa with a paused video-clip visible on the TV in front of them. A photo is selected via the WUC and "sent" from the WUC to the TV]
So... the Wii U has dual-screen capabilities, as per virtually all PCs (and some mobile devices) for the last decade. To date, it's not been a particularly exciting feature - dual-screen systems are invaluable for work (I run a triple-head display at home) but haven't really seen that much use in the living room.
Admittedly, being able to "invisibly" select media is useful, but only in limited scenarios - searching through holiday snaps or queuing up music, for instance. However, the usefullness of this feature is heavily dependant on the featureset of the Wii U. For instance, will it be able to stream media from other networked devices (e.g. Samba/NFS or uPNP), or will it only support local media?
Given the problems Nintendo has had with media-reading exploits on the Wii, I'd expect this functionality to be heavily tied down and therefore of limited use in what was already a pretty marginal use-case...
Scene #12: Get More Detail with the New Controller
[A scene from a new Zelda game is displayed on the TV; the player looks down at the WUC to see a top-down map view of the dungeon]
The ability to display secondary information on the WUC is undeniably useful - though care has to be taken to not overdo it, as switching between the two displays could cause a significant loss of immersion; there's also the time needed to physically refocus when switching between the "near" and "far" views. And similar applies to any games which involve a mix of "physical" and touchscreen controls: physically moving your hand(s) to switch between the two means there'll be a period of time when you're controlling neither aspect: it may only be less than a second, but that's more than enough time to die in a realtime game...
No more scenes!
All told, Nintendo packed a lot into the 3 minutes and twenty seconds of the video; unfortunately, at least for me, it's resulted in more questions than answers. And then there's the biggest question of all: the demo reel focused exclusively on single-player gameplay features. Where's the multiplayer?
Of course, we've since seen at least some of the reason for this: the Wii U will only support a single WUC controller, significantly limiting it's local-multiplayer capabilities. However, this article is long enough, so we'll save discussion of that for another day...