Games are a constantly evolving medium, but after recent evolutions in user interfaces with the Nintendo Wii and Kinect, what's next for gaming? To find out we spoke to inventor, futurist and all-round smart guy Mark Pesce about the future of gaming and what we can expect over the next 10 to 20 years.
Predicting the future is tricky – just ask Bob Gale. Hoverboards, flying cars, hydrated pizza – Back to the Future is strewn with the litter of misguided clairvoyance, leaving an entire generation of 20-somethings depressed, empty husks of men, F5ing the homepage of their Facebook profile when they should be on the streets kicking ass in their auto-fit bodywarmers and Nikes that lace themselves.
So yes, predicting the future can be a fruitless exercise - but when it comes to videogames we just can’t help ourselves. New technology continues to drive this industry to new heights, so it makes sense for us to gaze into the crystal ball, aimlessly wondering, dreaming of what the beguiling world of video games will show us next.
THE STARTING POINT “The starting point is Kinect,” claims Mark Pesce - and he should know. He’s only the co-inventor of VRML - a source-free remote that pioneered what Nintendo attempted, 15 years before the Wii hit shelves. He’s also the author of The Playful World: How Technology Transformed Our Imagination and a judge on ABC’s hit show The New Inventors.
“The Kinect is without question the most important user-interface innovation since the mouse. Everything we do in regular gaming and computing is going to start reconfiguring around what it is and what it does. It turns the tables round – we’ve been watching computers for the last 30 years, but now for the next 30 years computers are going to be watching us.”
So, in a sense, we’re at the start of a new learning curve. We’ve spent the last 20 or 30 years interacting with devices that, in short, did what they were told – directly - because we told them to. User interfaces like Kinect will now define the way in which we interface with our technology by interacting right back at us.
But isn’t Kinect a laggy, frustrating piece of kit with its own myriad of issues? It struggles in small living rooms; it can’t recognise more than one person at a time. Our experience with Kinect has been punctuated with moments of awe, sandwiched between a host of problems and frustrations.
“I think you’re right,” begins Mark, “When Kinect was first announced we didn’t really get a feel for the actual limitations.
“But the limitations are half the device and half us – we don’t really understand all of the metaphors for working with the device yet. People did stupid things with mice for the first five years they were on the market before people started to discover what they were good for. It’s a co-evolution.”
Those limitations, and the continuing struggle of developers to invent 'metaphors' for Kinect, probably accounts for the fact that the software line-up for the device has been lacklustre to say the least. The Nintendo Wii has struggled in a similar way – even Nintendo’s first party games struggled to innovate within this volumetric space – hence the infamous "waggle".
“The Wii is not a bad way to approach the same problem,” claims Mark “It’s a different approach – it opens different doors. And Nintendo has made everything so friendly, so easy. In some ways they’re the Apple of video gaming – actually it’s the other way around, Apple has been copying everything Nintendo does! You start to see that there are strengths that certain companies can run with – Nintendo are family friendly and have the ease of use thing.”
AN IDENTITY CRISIS Speaking of Apple – they’ve made grand leaps in user interface design and, in some ways, have made the grandest leaps in terms of evolving the control metaphor. What’s the next step?
“It’s rumoured,” Mark hesitates, “that there will be facial recognition put into the next iPad. One way or another the devices are going to start looking out. And that changes the emphasis, because when you change the interface and the device you change the spectrum of what’s possible. We’ve only recently opened this door.”
But where do Sony fit into this?
“Sony’s having an identity crisis,” laughs Mark. “They don’t really know what it is they want to be doing. With the PS3 it’s like they sold everyone a supercomputer and asked everyone to use Blu-ray discs! It’s a bit of a miss and I don’t know whose fault that is.
“As to where they should go, well... Sony has strengths in consumer technology that both Nintendo and Microsoft would kill for. They also have a wealth of intellectual property. It seems to me that they’re just not really good at figuring out what they want to do. Are we doing the phone? Are doing the handheld? Well, OK. What are they doing? Sony, I guess, should be trying to sell a seamless experience across its entire platform.”
But technically that is what Sony are trying to do – sell a seamless experience across an entire platform. The PS3’s new slogan is, after all, ‘it only does everything’. The problem is, according to Mark, is in the execution and a fear of committing whenever they, as a company, find their own point of difference.
“We saw this with the Eye Toy,” begins Mark. “Honestly - how badly did Sony f**k that one up? I was in Sony’s lab when they were working on this, maybe in 2001? Then they released it and they just sort of dropped it! So here they are - they’ve now developed a next generation interface. They could’ve gotten close to Kinect before Kinect.
“When it comes to consumer tech it’s all about presentation,” he continues, “There are two things that are going to work here – one is going to be your marketing and the second is the word of mouth. Sony’s got OK word of mouth. But the word of mouth was that it was really expensive. You have to fight this by having your marketing be so freakin’ cool. You have to have these two things working together.
“Look at Kinect – Kinect is like 170 bucks? For all that technology? It’s shooting lasers around the room! It’s amazing and Microsoft must have known – ‘if we wanna get it out there it’s gotta be cheap’.”
THE ACCIDENTAL GAME COMPANY If any company understands how to market and sell new technology to a mass market it’s Apple – and they’re shifting units one innovation at a time, which is perfect for a mainstream audience that doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by innovations they don’t necessarily understand. But when it comes to the video gaming space Apple are - how can we put this... N00bs?
“Apple is the accidental video game company,” laughs Mark. “The thing with the iPad is that Apple did not know what people would use the iPad for. Now, you show any child older than 18 months an iPad and you cannot pry it from them until they fall asleep! I’m serious! This is the way they want it – it’s become their personal screen.
“So in a sense Apple has been handed the entire game market for the next generation of children. It’s up to the developers to work out what they can do, or what they want to do with these interfaces. When it comes to touch, the way we play and the things we can do are going to be radically different. There are a whole bunch of directions this can go in. You’re right – this is absolutely Apple’s game to lose. But Apple is not a game company! They don’t even have a game division.
“They have to feed the beast. They’re already the hold the largest share of the handheld market, but are they doing enough to feed that beast? If I were running the company while Steve was away, I would maybe start up a little initiative to work out how I can feed the beast...”
THE VOLUMETRIC REVOLUTION But what about 3D? In the near future, at least, the technology being force-fed down our gullets is 3D. Sony are betting the farm on this new tech – using it as a focus to sell their seamless multimedia vision. Nintendo will be first to market with a mainstream device that delivers 3D visuals without glasses – will this be the game changer everyone expects?
“There are a lot of risks involved with 3D and the reason we haven’t heard that much about it is because there really isn’t that much 3D content yet. Thank God! People are popping in the occasional 3D movie and that’s pretty much it.
“I am a little concerned – Nintendo has expressly forbidden anyone under six years old from playing the 3DS? Why would they do that? It’s clear they understand there’s a potential issue here. I’ve been very clear when I talk to anyone – don’t let any of your kids under seven watch 3D at all. After that, well... we’ll see. We’re all adults and our lives are already ruined anyway!”
Mark Pesce, famously, has spoken out vehemently against 3D but even he is apprehensive about labelling it a fad. The problem, he believes, is the sheer force and marketing weight behind it.
“I’m not going to make a call on whether it’s a fad or not,” he claims. “It’s early days and there’s so much energy behind it. They really want this to work. I can think that it’s a train wreck, but they really want to push it. That kind of thing makes it into market all the time - because there’s enough force behind it.”
“Believe it or not, we are starting to see projection holography,” he begins. “They’ve got it working at a single frame every two seconds! And that’s already being fast-tracked.
“It’ll be something that occupies space,” he continues. “The only problem, of course, is that the processing power required is going to be of a completely higher magnitude. Everyone’s wondering what they’re going to do now that they can stick a thousand CPUs on a chip - well I think we have an answer! You’re going to need it to drive a holographic display, because they’re volumetric – they use voxels instead of pixels - you have to render the entire volume, not just the surfaces.
“I think you’re going to see that sort of thing being fast tracked. When you hit even 15 frames per second, I think people will be happy with that - to begin with. I think we’ll see that by about 2020, maybe even before that.”
But won’t we need some sort of new user-interface to navigate this volumetric space? Apparently not. Some of us already have the necessary kit in our own living rooms.
“Actually, Kinect is ideal for this sort of thing,” claims Mark. “Kinect is volumetric – it is literally 3D. It actually gives you points in space – it’s doing that work. Kinect is setting the stage for holographic devices and I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see games that play on that – even it’s only in 2D. It will play off the fact that Kinect is giving you a volumetric space to play in.
“In this case the interface is leading the display technology.”
What’s becoming increasingly clear, especially over the last few years, is that the way in which we play games in becoming increasingly more important than what we’re playing – the success of the Wii and Kinect can attest to that. In that regard Mark Pesce is correct – the user interface is leading the display tech and showing us signs of what is possible for interactivity in the future.
We can only hope to be around long enough to see it come to fruition.