Motion-based controls must take on the Wii's legacy, for better or worse
"So basically it's like a Wii without the Wii?"
That was my fiancee's reaction to the Leap Motion controller promo video, where a disembodied hand is shown browsing the Web, writing "hello" over and over again, and playing games, all via a little silver bar that will bring motion-based controls to computers. Not "Holy shit!" Not "That's cool." Just, a comparison to an almost 7-year-old videogame console.
This shouldn't have been a surprise. Nintendo had sold almost 100 million of the consoles by September of 2012, offering many households their first experience with motion-based controls. The unbelievably named "WiiMote" and its television-saving wrist-strap became synonymous with motion-based controls, as everyone from toddlers to the elderly swung at virtual tennis balls or decided to bowl in their living room. Wii was a cheap novelty, and the excitement over being to play games with more than a few buttons and some joysticks spread with each console sold.
We may have forgotten just how bad the Wii and its motion controls really were, however. Sure, it was better than anything most people had experienced, but now it's almost impossible to believe that people were willing to deal with the Wii and its idiosyncracies.
There was no such thing as a "plug-and-play" experience with the Wii. It was "plug-and-turn-on-and-try-to-get-the-sensor-bar-in-the-right-place-good-okay-wait-oh-shit-who-put-that-coffee-table-there-goddamnit-well-let's-move-it-okay-that's-good." Then even the smallest turn would send that little goddamn virtual hand flying across the screen, displaying hyper-sensitivity at times and then severe latency and frustrating limitations at others.
Nintendo improved this with the Wii MotionPlus, an addition that original Wii owners could purchase for their WiiMotes and shipped standard with new consoles. Finally, things were a bit easier -- even if that damn coffee table was still in the way.
And then the magic wore off. People realized that they could play games with a tiny flick of the wrist instead of actually, you know, burning calories and moving their bodies. I and everyone I know who owns a Wii got lazy or just put their WiiMotes away, a thought that had been unbewiivable (you try typing "Wii" so many times without making a joke) just a few months prior. Motion-based controls went from being the bee's knees -- or whatever metaphor is appropriate for your age -- to being a pain in the ass, a forgotten gimmick.
Now, credit where credit is due: Nintendo showed the world that motion-based controls were not only possible but also affordable, and gave many living rooms an experience that they had previously only imagined. And there are some aspects of the Wii -- particularly its Virtual Console, which allows gamers to access many games from past eras -- that are still appealing today. There's a reason why Nintendo decided to keep it going (albeit in a smaller, less capable form) in Canada even after the introduction of the Wii U.
But the Wii is a double-edged sword. It familiarized people with motion-based controls, but it also taught them that these controls were limited, finicky, and could be a hassle to get working properly. It's the same with some of the solutions I saw at CES. I've already written about how motion-based controls are likely the future of interaction, and people seemed to genuinely enjoy the tool on the showroom floor, but I underestimated the layman's perception.
People need to be convinced that these aren't the motion-based controls that they're used to -- a sentence that would have read as absurd just a few years ago. That may be the most daunting task that Best Buy's blue-shirts have to deal with as they convince potential customers that the Leap Motion isn't "The Wii without the Wii," and that it's worth purchasing.
You and I probably look at the Leap Motion and similar tools and think of "Minority Report" or "Iron Man" -- a sentiment that Leap Motion COO and president Andy Miller says is pretty common. But our families, the people who will turn motion-based controls into a viable business that can thrive beyond the early adopter market? They're going to think of bowling and playing tennis and videogames.
Whatever happens, it's likely that we'll have Nintendo to thank. And blame.
[Image courtesy Reintji]