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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…

The Indiana Jones void January 5, 2010

Posted by Cesar in gaming me.
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I noticed I’ve been having this conversation frequently: “don’t you miss the great action/adventure movies we had in the past?” Darn, it makes me feel old, missing something from more than a decade ago. But the point is that many do miss those great movies. I realized that I did too when I stopped to think about the current action movie actors. After Bruce Willis, Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford gave up on the action, no one was able to fill in their shoes. No wonder we saw many of them coming back to the genre for reruns (except for the Governor, who nonetheless saw a new Terminator movie be released certainly because of the success of Terminator 2). Don’t get me wrong: I like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, but it is a different league. No comparison. They make decent action movies, but no remarkable action characters I guess.

Amongst all top action movies, however, the ones I miss the most are the Indiana Jones ones. The closest thing we had to The Last Crusade was, to me, The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, another movie with the fedora hat hero (did you guys know his inseparable hat was made in Brazil?). Not as good, but still fun. Other attempts in the same style, like The Mummy and Sahara, were good, National Treasure not by a mile. But again: no comparison.

I don’t know if the appeal of these movies slowed down or if the lack of top action stars is behind the slowdown, but the truth is Indiana Jones and John McClane left a void that has yet to be filled.

Well… At least in the big screen. Because if you, like me, miss top action movies and happen to be a gamer, stop reading and go play Uncharted 2 right now. You know, I have had a 360 for a while, and it was only by the middle of last year that I got the PS3. But the two best movie-like games I have ever played were on the Sony platform: first MGS4 and now Uncharted 2. Among Thieves is an amazing game, great to play and great to watch. Such an immersive experience. So much that I never play it when I don’t have much time because I don’t want to stop in the middle of a chapter. I’m always looking for the next cut-scene, the next plot twist.

This week I am busy at work again. So I can’t see myself playing any time soon. I can’t wait for the next chapter. But at least I found a way to get my Indiana Jones fix.

See you space cowboys…


Less buttons, more immersion: addendum December 14, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
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Hi folks. I know, after three huge posts, another one about this is definitely too much. But  for completeness sake, I just have to do it.

What motivated the whole immersion subject was my interest in Project Natal. So that’s what I mentioned every time I talked about it. But it wouldn’t be right to neglect other efforts on the same field. My curiosity about Project Natal made me take a closer look into both the new PS3 motion controller and the already released Wii MotionPlus. Although they have a different concept, Natal being controller free and the others being wand based, all of them try to achieve the same goal, which is to increase immersion by either making controls more transparent or more engaging.

I think the philosophical prize has to go to Microsoft, not using controllers is the ultimate goal. But it is unquestionable that the wand makes some things much easier, specially for hardcore games. Pointing things, be they pens or guns, and swinging objects, golf clubs or swords, are part of a huge segment of games. And the mechanic is easier to simulate with a wand (although not impossible without it I must say).

I can actually see them going in different directions with each technology. No matter how they fight for controller supremacy, the winners are the players.

See you space cowboys…

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