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Pointing interaction March 31, 2010

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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Once again interaction is the subject of the blog. I suspect I mentioned some of this stuff before, when talking about immersion, but it’s been on my mind lately so I thought I could share.

What I have been rummaging is how important pointing is in human communication. It might just be the most important gesture we use when trying to express something. We point our fingers at people when we refer to them, at objects to draw attention, at streets and buildings to give directions and even at ourselves to indicate personal feelings or achievements.

But we don’t stop there. If you think of pointing in an ample way, as indicating a position in space, pointing is also the most natural drawing strategy we have. We sketch on the sand and paint with our fingers. And if we need more precision, we create tools to do the job. Pens, pencils, compasses, rulers, all of them tools to make pointing more precise. Of course the goal is to generate a visual representation of something, but we always want to point on the process.

Pointing can also be very aggressive too: guns are pointed at the target before the shot, swords pointed at the heart to threaten. The list could go on and on.

In computers we tried not to point too much and at the beginning we just moved cursors up and down with our arrow keys (on a second thought, isn’t that pointing too?). But after some skepticism, the whole world succumbed to the mouse, invented at the Stanford Research Institute and popularized by Apple in 1984 with the Macintosh. The mouse has always been recognized as a pointing device and during the years it increased enormously in precision and functionality.

But using the mouse is not as natural as using our hands. Or pencils. So there goes humanity again developing tablet pens and displays, touch screens and what not. Maybe by now, if you remember I am a gamer, you can see where I am going. No? What if I say a few weeks ago I gave up fighting and got an iPhone?

Yes, there we go again to input methods and interaction in video games.

Touch screens are not new and neither are stylus pens. However, when touch devices became more popular and portable, the stylus became a hassle. Storing the pen inside the device, like it happens for example with the Nintendo DS, is a valid option. But when the device becomes truly portable and is used everywhere, like in a smart phone, it doesn’t work so well. Why? Because getting it out of the device to answer a call is very annoying. And because it is easy to lose.

Before I got the iPhone, I had an LG Dare. It is a decent phone, with a touchscreen and a stylus that I could attach to it. But every time I got a call, I would leave the stylus where it was and use my fingers. My first instinct was to actually use my fingers all the time, except that in the LG Dare you sometimes can’t do s*** without the stylus.

The iPhone is different. It was designed to be used with the fingers, it doesn’t even have a stylus. I was very impressed at how this apparently small change made such a big difference. Everything feels more natural.

And when I thought of that, I immediately remembered my talk about video game immersion and the division between transparent and engaging controls. Using the touchscreen with the fingers is very transparent.

Now let’s thing again about the new control technologies coming out for consoles this year, joining the Wii in the innovative input group. Project Natal is definitely the most transparent of them hands down. Nothing feels as natural and unobtrusive as moving our own bodies. However, does it offer a good pointing device? Probably not as good as Playstation Move (or Wii MotionPlus for that matter).

And therein, as the bard would tell us, lies the rub (this reminds me of Inside Man. Great movie). There’s a lot of expectation associated to Natal. but we don’t know exactly what to expect yet.  If they succeed at making with image recognition a top-notch pointing system, there’s no discussion and similar systems will be the future of gaming. However, I’m not sure that will hold. Just like touch screens lose precision when used with fingers, pointing will lose precision without a device manufactured exclusively with that purpose.

So I guess what I am trying to put into perspective is the balance between transparency and pointing precision. The difference in this balance is most likely going to dictate the games that come out for each device. And the question is: given the importance of pointing and of transparency, which one do you prefer? My answer is always the same: just to be on the safe side, I’ll probably choose both and find out playing.

See you space cowboys…

Microsoft’s gaming phone March 11, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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Do I have to mention the picture again? I didn’t think so. Anyway, this is a quick update. In one of my last entries, I mentioned Sony’s take on the PSP phone. So for completeness sake I feel I should mention the competition: this week, at GDC, Microsoft announced their new mobile phone OS.

Windows Phone 7 will have access to Xbox Live Arcade. On the programming side, the new version of XNA, the 4.0 release, will offer support for the platform, which by the way means developers will be able to create games for Windows 7 phones in a cost free environment.

As I mentioned when talking about the PSP phone, the key to this kind of initiative is software. And both companies are betting on their console markets to succeed. In that sense, I have to say Microsoft will get a head start. Live Arcade is right now a much stronger media distribution solution than the Playstation Network.

By the way, with the Live Arcade + XNA approach Microsoft rivals iPhone development, which is also free. What about Sony? The Japanese giant was apparently going that route, at least as far as sales are concerned, with the low priced PSP Mini games. However, development still depends on an expensive SDK. Maybe that indicates Sony might choose not to go that route and follow the more traditional game development/distribution model, keeping the publisher in between and charging for the development kit, like Nintedo does with the DSiware.

Which approach is better? I prefer the iPhone/Microsoft one by far. But that’s obvious because being both gamer and a programmer, I am biased. But let’s be fair, if I were a publisher or a manufacturer, things would be far less evident.

See you space cowboys…

Project Natal update: looking good! March 6, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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Peter Molyneux, the famous Lionhead designer behind the Fable series, recently talked about improvement in Natal technology. In a previous post, I mentioned Project Natal was dropping the internal chip and the camera had disturbing lags that were preventing optimal gameplay.

It seems Microsoft is taking care of that and the new version of the device is a lot better. I also noticed it is not mentioned anywhere that the hardware reached it’s final state. That means Microsoft is still working to make it even better, which is great.

So one of the concerns, the lag, is apparently going to be resolved by the end of the year, when Project Natal hits the market.

I would love to see the internal chip go back into the product, but that’s not going to happen. However, while it is true that the lack of the internal processor will limit updates to already existing games, the absence of camera lag ensures Project Natal will be as revolutionary as it can be for the new games. I can’t wait to play with it.

See you space cowboys…

Sony’s iPhone: I like it! March 4, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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Warning: don’t believe the picture. I don’t know why but I couldn’t resist doing this. Anyway, we have to be careful with these news, rumors of a Sony Ericsson PSP were pretty strong in 2007 – 2008 and it ended up being nothing but talk. But the Wall Street Journal reported recently that Sony might be investing in a new line of gaming handhelds. It would be constituted of a mix PSP + phone to compete with the iPhone and another big one to fight the iPad. I can see the cheesy names already: PSPhone and PSPad. LOL.

I’m not sure it is going to work out. It could, Sony has knowledge in both areas and I always appreciated Sony Ericsson phones. And let’s not forget it is Sony we are talking about. They are huge and definitely have the money to make it happen. On the other hand, Apple is a very strong competitor and the iPhone has a loyal consumer (fan?) base. But for a while now I believe the decisive factor for these devices is software. What about the Playstation Network? Isn’t that good enough? It could be. The foundation is there. If Sony ensures a solid application store and stimulates studios to develop for the platform, that’s a phone I will want to buy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the iPhone. But it is not so great as a gaming platform and not so great as a phone either! A PSP phone will probably be a so so phone too, but on the other hand it will be a great gaming platform.

I guess the new download media platform Sony is about to launch will be a good thermometer. Let’s see how that goes.

See you space cowboys…

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