Wii and interactivity

December 15, 2006

(Sorry. All the good “Wii” puns have been taken, so I needed to play it straight here.)

As everyone probably knows, Nintendo has encountered much success in selling its new Wii gaming console. Perhaps the biggest selling point is the system’s interactivity, which could potentially transform gaming couch potatoes into toned Olympians. Instead of a conventional gaming joystick or pad, users control an avatar’s movements with a remote control device, while a sensor bar responds to gamer movements.

Unfortunately, some overzealous users have gotten into games so seriously that “Pac Man thumb” seems rather mild in retrospect. In some instances, the Wii Remote has escaped the hands of gamers, causing injuries to people (and probably pets), as well as damage to nearby objects (including televisions, not surprisingly). Even with the wrist strap attached to the remote as a safety precaution, it sometimes is insufficient for keeping the remote from flying in some random direction at the height of gaming passion. (I suppose the accompanying “nunchuk” device adds to the fun.) Due to the number of complaints, Nintendo has decided to replace the wrist straps included with Wii game consoles, and to include better straps with new models.

Both BBC and CNN report on Nintendo’s decision to replace the straps. The BBC story also includes reader opinions about the strap, which seem evenly divided between complaints about the straps and those who see no problems.

Is it the responsibility of users to be more careful with the Wii remote, or does Nintendo have a responsibility to develop better straps? As the BBC article points out, Nintendo does caution players against sudden and sweeping motions, and to keep hands dry so that the remote doesn’t slip away. However, customers probably assumed that the straps would accommodate aggressive playing styles, and Nintendo must have realized that their straps were insufficient to meet the consumers’ need to play the hell out of their games. Furthermore, even if players decided to use some kind of glove to prevent perspiration from making the remote slippery, the nature of some games probably encourages more dynamic movements. (Perhaps Nintendo tested prototypes with rather mild-mannered people, and developers decided to base the wrist strap design on how they played.)

I suppose Wii brings us a little closer to the kinds of virtual realities imagined in popular culture, such as the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hopefully, we can get away from the necessity of carrying a remote control to interact in a similar environment. Nevertheless, something similar to a Wii could be useful in preparing students interested in fields that use “haptics” technological applications, which simulate the sense of touch. Basically, users receive “touch” feedback from haptic computer applications through an intermediary device, such as a remote control or a joystick. The Wikipedia entry for “haptic” lists some possible applications of such technology in a variety of disciplines, such as medicine (which is the first field I usually think of when I think of haptics).

Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people would be interested in buying some kind of haptic videogame involving medicine or surgery. (“Operation on Steroids,” I suppose.) Some might like the “gross-out factor,” while others might like the idea of improving their eye-hand coordination skills. (In fact, a study conducted at Beth Israel Medical Center suggests that video games might enhance the performance of those who do laparoscopic surgery.) Considering the high stakes of such a game, it would also reduce the likelihood of a Wii remote flying into the television set.

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