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Project Cafe Musings
by Robert Hewson on 05/02/11 03:04:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


First things first; the following is pure speculation. I have never seen a Project Cafe devkit, I’ve not signed a Wii 2 NDA and nobody has told me anything about a console called Stream.

I’m writing this because when it comes to new gaming hardware I am a turbo nerd who enters unparalleled levels of arousal in the run up to a big-announcement E3, especially when it comes to new Nintendo hardware because they usually blow all minds.

So, letting my imagination run away with itself, here are my top tips for possible features of Nintendo’s new baby:

AR in your living room

One of the most striking features of the 3DS is the AR technology.  In case you don’t already know, the console comes with AR games built in and a stack of Nintendo themed playing cards to use with them. You simply place a playing card somewhere in the real world and point the handhelds stereoscopic camera lenses at it.

The system uses the card as a reference point in order to magically project virtual elements into your real world through the 3DS screen. Better still; the surface the card is on can be warped, folded and transformed to become part of the landscape of the game, blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual in the process.

With Nintendo’s new console apparently packing a 6 inch touch screen on the controller itself, it’s easy to imagine how this concept might be taken even further (assuming the controller also has a rear facing camera).

Instead of using a playing card as reference, the controller could use the entire surface of your TV. The fact that your TV is self illuminating makes it easy to track in almost any lighting conditions (in the same way as the glowing ball on the Playstation Move controller) and the relatively large surface area means entire scenes could potentially spill out of your TV and invade your living room.

Throw in gyroscopes inside the controller itself (like the 3DS has) and you have some intriguing possibilities for interaction – you could even have friends and family walking between the controller and the TV to interact with the game world on your behalf.

Even if this isn’t one of the main features Nintendo push, as long as the controller has a screen and a camera there’s probably very little to stop developers from creating these sorts of AR experiences.

Also consider this; the 3DS already has the necessary hardware for the job, and it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen Nintendo allowing their handheld console to enhance the experience of their home console or act as an additional control device (I’m thinking Gamecube and GBA here).

3D without glasses

The 3DS screen is brilliant. It provides an astonishing sense of depth without any blurring and, as Nintendo loves to point out, it doesn’t require special glasses. Could the screen on the new home consoles controller use similar tech? If so, how might this combine with AR? Maybe we’ll discover games which project out from your TV in glorious 3D through the controllers screen?

Stream to tablet

One of the rumoured names of the new console is Stream, and we’re pretty confident that it will involve streaming content to the controllers screen from the console. When you think about it the potential here is quite staggering; consider the following facts:

  1. People talk about cloud gaming services like OnLive being the future, but the infrastructure just isn’t there to make it work big time yet
  2. Nintendo have concerns about the iPhone / Android market and have publicly stated very recently that they think cheap apps are damaging to the industry

The main problem with OnLive is latency. If you are too far away from a server then the quality of experience is going to suffer, or maybe not work at all. Of course in your own home you could probably stream HD content straight from the console to the controller, useful for times when the Missus has The Only Way is Essex on TV and you want to be able to play your favourite games. But even more broadly, what if your console can serve your games over the internet? If you are within the local vicinity of it (i.e. the same town or city) as you probably will be most of the time, then latency would still be relatively low. Better still, the small screen on the device means the video being streamed is also lower resolution compared to OnLive meaning you could potentially stream full games using the full grunt of the home console to the screen while out and about.

If the controller turns out to be a swish tablet design which looks at home next to an iPhone but with massively more impressive gaming performance then you could have a recipe for an aggressive Nintendo sucker punch to counter what it sees as a threat from smart phones with cheap apps. Nintendo games on the Nintendo controller/tablet would look and perform like the premium experiences they are and make cheap apps look, well, cheap.

What if Nintendo goes even further and sets up a network of hotspots to serve games from when out of range of your console? What if other peoples console could share the grunt of serving your game?

Okay so I’m not really taking into account all the technical and practical hurdles such as how the controller would connect to the net. As I said, this is all just pie in the sky speculation, but then Nintendo is a pie in the sky kind of company. If the rumours are true and Nintendo is planning to recapture the hardcore with its new beast, then don’t be too surprised if come June you’re casting aside your apathy towards the Wii and are once again a disciple ready to worship at the Nintendo altar.

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Jamie Mann
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There's some nice speculation there, but we're still a long way off that kind of AR being feasible (at least at the price point Nintendo is likely to want to punt stuff out) - and that's before you consider issues such as the different sizes and positions of TVs. How well will this work on a 12" TV in a children's bedroom, or a 54" TV mounted on a wall? How's Mario going to look when he's floating near the ceiling, or running about below floor level?

Equally importantly: if you're playing games by staring at a small LCD screen, then what's the point of the "home console" part of the equation? All you're really doing is mimicking the 3DS's AR cards, but with at a much higher price point.

The other side of things does look more likely - I've already written far too much on Gamasutra about the probability of Nintendo including a touchscreen controller with the Wii 2/Project Cafe. However, it sounds as if Nintendo is very much looking to duplicate the DS model when it comes to the touchscreen - i.e. the TV will be effectively replacing the "top" screen of the DS, and the bottom touchscreen will be mostly used to provide secondary information and act as a configurable (and equally secondary) controller system alongside the more traditional physical buttons.

In other words, the controller will not be usable as a "standalone" gaming device: it's likely to just be a gamepad with a tap-to-select touchscreen on it. And that's not something I can see people getting particularly excited about. Sure, it has a lot of potential for multiplayer games, but it's far from being as "casual-friendly" as the Wii was.

However, the streaming ideas you've suggested above would work very well for Apple, if they do go ahead with enabling gaming on the Apple TV: it wouldn't be that hard for them to produce a stripped down "iPod Touch" controller (slower CPU, no internal flash storage) and thereby enable the playing of all those "cheap" apps on a TV...

Robert Green
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"Equally importantly: if you're playing games by staring at a small LCD screen, then what's the point of the "home console" part of the equation?"

It sounds strange, but here's my theory: Having a screen on a controller makes very little sense, unless your attention isn't actually focussed on a tv. Do people want to sit on a couch and play games on a device that has its own screen? Surely the ipad has shown they do. But why make it a home console then? Because then it can be more powerful than the 360/PS3 while the controller itself is simply a wireless screen and battery with buttons. Also, it opens the possibility of multiple screens, for multiplayer gaming, without each person buying a $500 piece of hardware, though it still sounds like they'd have trouble pricing it for less than an ipod touch.

On the other hand, I'm assuming it makes sense, and this is a company which just released a console with a 2D screen, a 3D screen and motion controls, so they don't seem opposed to the kitchen sink approach.

Jamie Mann
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I can see where you're coming from, and it is fun to speculate - I spent far too long tapping out a similar batch of predictions:)

However, I think it's worth bearing in mind that the iPad has a 9.7" screen which runs at 1024*768 - it also doesn't have physical controls and costs a minimum of $499.

Conversely, Nintendo need to keep the controller price point as low as possible, have already indicated that the Cafe controller will include physical buttons and need to keep the form factor small enough to be usable by children. All told, it's highly likely to have a relatively small screen. In fact, I'd expect it to be based on DS technology and utilise a 3.2" screen running at a resolution of 256*192.

(also: the bigger the screen, the faster the battery levels will drop. Nintendo could use AA batteries, as happened with the Wiimote, but I suspect a backlit streaming-video touchscreen controller is going to chew through them far, far quicker. Unless Nintendo are planning something really bizarre, like using a Kindle-style e-ink display for the touchscreen...)

Graphics on a screen that size aren't going to be able to compete with the 360/PS3. There's also a more intangible problem: having everyone focusing on their own little screen is liable to significantly detract from the shared-experience element of local multiplayer.

But anyhoo. That's just my theory, and we're unlikely to get anything confirmed until E3 at the earliest. So at least until then, we may as well keep in speculating ;)

Robert Hewson
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Yep I think you're right about the technical hurdles and the cost, however I still think AR could be a key feature. As you say it wouldn't work to play the entire game constantly looking through the controller screen, but for occasional bonuses or mini games it makes more sense. You make a good point about the lack of information about the landscape being a problem for characters clipping through floors etc, but if you imagine a floating ? box instead or Face Raiders style mini games then any TV in any position would work as the reference point.

Robert Hewson
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On the screen size, all the 'rumours' and 'leaks' seem to have suggested a 6" screen which is a pretty significant size - not as big as an iPad but bigger than the NGP's 5 inch display for example. If it were merely an extra touch panel like the DS lower screen I doubt they'd make it so big - hence my AR speculation. It has also been suggested that it will be an HD screen... if so then whatever they have planned they perhaps expect people to be looking at it a lot (assuming both rumours are correct).

Still history suggests Nintendo want to sell at a profit and use cheap technology in a cheap way, so time will tell...

Robert Green
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6" seems to be more than large enough to house an 'HD' screen. If HD is taken to mean 720p, then a display with the iPhone4's pixel density would only need to be 4.5", so it wouldn't even need to be that cutting edge.

My guesses were also based on the idea that having a screen of that size on the controller suggests that you'd want to spend a lot of time looking at it, and it wouldn't just be a secondary display.

Another possible explanation is that it's not actually a screen. It certainly wouldn't be the first time I've heard a touch pad accidentally referred to as a 'touchscreen', simply because everyone is so familiar with that term nowadays. I'm not sure a touch pad is a great input device for games though.

Jamie Mann
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@Rob H: I know the rumours are suggesting a 6" screen, but I'd be really surprised if Nintendo went down this route - if the device also has physical controls on it, it'd make for a physically huge controller. To put things in context: the NGP has a 5" screen and is expected to be around 7.2" wide; a 6" screen is likely to push the overall controller to around 9" wide, or nearly as big as the iPad! It's certainly not something I'd consider ergonomically friendly for children or people outside the "Western Male 18-30" demographic (anyone remember the problem Microsoft had in Japan with the original Xbox controller?).

Then too, there's also the issues with cost and battery life; the former scales up and the latter scales down as the size of the screen increases. Both could cause significant problems for user acceptance.

Robert Hewson
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Yep, good point... I suppose there's every chance that these 'rumours' are themselves curve balls, so who knows. I suspect that Nintendo will continue to go with cheap tech and sell hardware at a profit, in which case some of the more far fetched ideas go out the window, but I dearly hope they do surprise us with something unique once again.

I remember quite vividly the speculation surrounding the original Wii. We only knew at the time that it would have a unique controller, and there were a lot of mock ups back then which assumed it would be a touch screen on a standard controller (the original DS was still new at the time) and a few rumours about gyroscopes, but nobody even came close to getting it right. There's no reason why Nintendo couldn't completely surprise us all once again. Holograms anyone (joke) :P

Jamie Mann
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True dat ;)

Sean Kiley
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The AR possibility could allow you to use your controller as a viewfinder for secret items or extra information (think of Samus' helmet HUD). Also, the gyroscope could save significant battery life by turning the screen on when the controller is raised and then back off again.

A camera on the controller would let you video chat, or let you see reactions of other players, take a snapshot after you frag 'em and flash it up on the screen. Haha!

Robert Hewson
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Yep... if AR was a part of the equation I think it would be a case of occasionally raising the screen to look for secret items or bonuses rather than watching the whole game through it.

Jamie Mann
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That'd certainly work better :)

I dunno. I still think there's too many issues with trying to make AR work with a TV: the player may not be facing the TV straight-on, they may be too far away for the AR markers to resolve properly, they may not hold the controller in the right position, they may unconciously swing the controller around while playing, etc. And that's before you get to the technical issues, such as figuring out a good position on the controller for the camera - and any sort of video-chat capability would require either two cameras (one for the TV, one for the player) or a swivel-mount.

Still, thinking about it, there is at least one way to achieve both: give the controller the same form factor as the DS/3DS, but shift to having the touchscreen/display on the lid, rather than the bottom half. This would free up room for more traditional controls (e.g. dual analog sticks), while making it relatively easy to position the lid at an angle where the player can see the screen and the camera can see the TV. Though I think you'd still need a swivel mount...