The Art of Motion Control: Beyond the Hype

[E3 2009] I don’t think that anyone had envisioned a post-E3 motion controller war, but that’s what’s happening in the forums and elsewhere right now. After the cool on-stage demos from Microsoft and Sony, gamers are split on what’s “better”, Sony’s Motion Controller magic wand or Microsoft’s full body project Natal. Our first take was that Project Natal was “better,but let’s try to go beyond the hype to review how each technology works, how it could be used and which might ultimately win.

The Nintendo Approach

Let’s establish some facts with the precursor: the Wiimote. Wiimote is a two sensor system made of one 3-axis rotation sensor and one optical (IR) sensor located in the pointer lens that tracks where on the screen the Wiimote is pointing at, relative to the sensor bar that comes with the console. An additional Nunchuck that also contains a motion sensor can be connected by a cable to the Wiimote. The recently introduced Wii Motion Plus is an add-on to the Wiimote that contains an angular rate sensor that can help differentiate between “twisting” and linear (movement) motion, thus making the overall motion sensing and interpretation more accurate.

Note that all these sensors only know what’s happening (rotation, acceleration) relative to their own position. They are the center of their small universe. Because of that, every Wii game is using some sort of context to “guess” how to interpret the data. They often need a “start position” that will tell them what the point of origin is (archery or golf are good examples) or games like Tennis sense simple swings and mostly adapt themselves, depending on the player’s position on screen. It’s robust because there are no external factor that can interfere and it’s arguably an efficient way to tackle the problem.

The Sony Approach

The Sony Motion Controller also use a motion sensor but it is augmented with visual information fed by a camera that can see a tracker (the glowy end of the remote). The presence of the motion sensor in Sony’s product is significant because that’s what propelled the visual motion tracking from “relatively bad” to “really cool”. Why? Because optical (color) tracking alone was simply not good enough. But when combined with a motion sensor, it actually surpasses the Wii Motion Plus.

Thanks to the internal sensor, the Sony Motion Controller knows exactly what orientation/acceleration it currently has but it also knows exactly where it is in space and what kind of motion the controller is really doing in the real world. Unlike the Nintendo solution, Sony has much less “guess work” to do because it can “see” what’s going on, although we think that games will still have to make some assumption about the current activity.

Optical tracking is not without challenge. Some external factors such as strong lights or sensor occluders might be problematic, but overall, Sony has done a good job of demonstrating the capability of their concept. We will know for sure when this will be an actual product but Sony’s motion sensing solution is theoretically superior to Nintendo’s. The controller itself will have buttons, so it is something that players should be accustomed to.

The Microsoft Approach

In short, Microsoft senses more: color, depth and voice. From a high-level, takes a visual approach to the problem, but the additional depth perception helps Microsoft overcome the barrier onto which Sony’s EyeToy color-based approach crashed. That makes it less prone to color interference, except for occluders (too much junk in your place) and even then, a simple subtract operation can probably wipe out the static object (including you, if you’re a couch potato). Anyhow, by using a virtual skeleton of the player (created once, then stored), Natal is capable of figuring out the body’s motion, including its position in space. Microsoft’s Natal greatest strength is that it can scan full body motions, something that neither Sony or Nintendo are capable of doing with their motion sensing solutions. Natal should, in theory, be much better for a boxing/fighting game or for the next Dance Dance Revolution type of products. It could also teach you to swing perfectly by comparing your skeletal motion with Tiger Wood’s…

It is however far from being a product and while we think that it mostly works, we wonder how much setup is involved. The video footage that shows how Natal works in the living room is a concept, Microsoft warns, and while we hope that it will be as good in reality, we are cautiously optimistic.

Theoretically, with Natal you could also hold a rolled-up magazine and use it as a “sword” – no accessory needed. In its promotional video, Microsoft hinted that you could use any objects with Natal and it depends entirely on the application. We have heard that Microsoft has already approached game developers, and that so far, it is “very usable”.


We thought that Sony and Microsoft would have come up with something to counter the Wiimote years ago, but “late” is be better than “never”. Both companies have realized that non-hardcore gamers represent their future growth – that’s what Nintendo itself said too- and if they want to cash on this new manna, they have to have motion-based games that seem so popular.

On the paper, Microsoft’s solution looks to be the most flexible one, but as always the content (and pricing) will dictate its success. In our view, the lack of button is a problem (do you believe in gestures for everything?) that is easy to solve with a cheap, small, wireless controller. But, because it is so different (superior?), developers might take a wait-and-see approach before creating games that cannot be ported to PS3 and Wii even if we expect an initial rush to be bundled with the hardware when it launches.

Sony’s solution is factually better than Nintendo’s and uses relatively known and proven concepts. It looks close enough to be a product, so we don’t expect bad surprises at this point. Sony’s Motion Controller might not be as “cool” as Microsoft’s Natal, but it might be enough to get new gamers on-board, and that’s what counts in the end. We think that because it is closer to Nintendo’s solution, game developer might port their Nintendo titles to the PS3 easily.

Nintendo seems to be the “loser” of this story, but the low price of the Wii will protect them in the short term, and they have another year before competitors have real products. Conceptually, they too could come up with a vision-based solution, although the weakness in processing power would probably come back to bite them in the butt. Another non-negligible fact is the incredible branding credit that Nintendo has acquired in non-gaming (aka new customers) circles. Finally, the Wii might be just “good enough” for these games – at least for this round of consoles. For sure, Nintendo will have to find another trick for its next-generation console.

The gaming world just entered into a new motion sensing arms race. Prepare for sweating!

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