The Wii U's second screen gets most of the press regarding Nintendo's new console, but there's another interesting oddity bolted into the new machine's controller: a camera.
The camera is front-facing and in the launch games I've played, barely used. When it is used, it's a reminder that there are lots of new possibilities available when something is standardized and included with every console. In fact, the Wii U controller's camera is the first camera that is included, by default, with every console of its type. Two generations of PlayStation cameras shipped separately with the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3, respectively. The popular Kinect sensor doesn't come with the Xbox (my best industry sources continue to maintain that the next Xbox, the one coming out late next year, will include the new Kinect).
Front-facing cameras are more common on portable devices: on phones, tablets. Sony's PlayStation Vita and Nintendo's own DSi and 3DS machines. On many of those, as with the Wii U, that camera can be used for video chat. On a Nintendo machine it's surely going to be used for gaming, too.
The Wii U game Nintendo Land uses the camera in its F-Zero racing game to stream a video feed of the player's face onto a small floating monitor that darts across the TV screen as the player races a jet-car down a track. The player is primarily supposed to be watching the game on the GamePad's screen. The view of the game that the Wii U pumps out to the TV screen is for same-room spectators. With the GamePad player focused on the controller screen in their hands, they won't see this stream of their facial expressions. That's for the spectators' amusement.
In Nintendo Land's Mario Chase game, the controller camera once again streams a feed of the GamePad player to the TV. In this case, it serves a practical gameplay purpose. The chased GamePad player is trying to flee or hide but can see a map on his or her screen that shows were the pursuing players are. The chasing players are watching the TV and can therefore see the stream fed by the GamePad camera. They have to talk to each other to strategise their plan of pursuit. The GamePad player, who is in the same room, can hear them, of course. Does the GamePad player smile when the pursuing players announce that they're going to look for him or her in the blue side of the map when or she is really in the red? Is that a giveaway to the players who can see the camera feed? How good will your poker face when you're playing?
When starting the Wii U karaoke game Sing Party the player is prompted to turn the face of their GamePad toward their TV. A video feed of what the camera is now seeing — part of the TV — now appears on the TV. The player is being asked to line the controller up with a section of the TV. This is a calibration test and ensures that the visuals on the GamePad and the video (and audio?) on the TV are synced. This is important for rhythm games and is reminiscent of the sensors on some guitar controllers that needed to be pointed at a TV to perform a similar kind of sync.
The question is if the camera is good enough to do more. Can it be used to detect facial expressions? Or scan bar codes to unlock bonus content? Can it read the brightness of a room or track a gesture? Can it change the way we play games in meaningful and enjoyable ways? Or will it be the least used feature a game controller has ever had? We shall see.