detailed analysis of the Move+PSEye tech so far. It pretty much agrees with most that the games didn't do the best job of showing the amazing potential of the hardware, but they do answer some questions that people have raised.
- Confirmed to work in pitch-black dark because of the orb glow and all the tech in the Move itself
- Some artists use Move instead of a mouse in programs like Maya (graphic design software)
It's been less than 24 hours since I attended the PlayStation Move reveal event at GDC, and I'm gathered in a small conference room of game-makers and press for Sony's presentation to developers. I'm looking for answers. Yesterday's event established release date, ballpark pricing and bundling options. I got to play a bunch of games too, but many of them were so early in development that accurately gauging the potential of the controller was a tough call.
The state of much of the software was such that you could be forgiven for thinking Move is little more than a Wii MotionPlus with some fancy camera options. But I know how good Sony's R&D teams are, I've read up on the underlying tech, and with the right concept and execution this should stand alongside the technological innovation found in Project Natal and in terms of certain, crucial applications, it could indeed surpass it.
As for the nuts and bolts of the wand itself, SCEE's David Coombes sets out his stall.
"The controller itself has a bunch of inertial sensors built into it which can be used to detect motion. There's an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a magnetometer in there. Those can be used to determine position and orientation," he says. "However, inertia sensors have some inherent limitations. They tend to suffer from drift and inaccuracy, there's a lot of noise in the data.
"Some of that is because these are simple integrated circuits. These aren't the sensors you'll get in an aeroplane for instance. What we did was add a glowing sphere that the [PlayStation Eye] camera can track, similar to the tech used in motion capture labs."
The combination of internal sensors - talking to the PS3 via a Bluetooth connection - and the PSEye tracking the glowing, bulbous tip of the Move adds to the flexibility and accuracy of the controller.
"The really cool thing about having the illuminated ball is that it works in all kinds of lighting conditions," Coombes continues. "It can work in darkness because it is self-illuminating. You change the colour of the ball and when you have four players, each one can have a differently coloured controller.
"The controllers can change colour too. So they can turn red as you move into a dangerous area, for example, or it can flash when you fire a gun. So as well as the tracking there are some interesting game design options you can use within the controller."
Sony research and development guru Anton Mikhailov takes point on much of the technical data imparted at the briefing. Straight away he's talking about the "dreaded lag". Yesterday, at the main event, latency with Move was defined as being under one frame - a state of affairs that seems almost unbelievable, putting the motion controller on equal footing with the DualShock 3 and Sixaxis. It turns out that getting the lowest possible latency was one of the team's primary objectives.
"The interface itself has some inherent latency because there's processing and so forth," explains Mikhailov. "But also, the player might have latency. If I want to throw a punch, I'm gonna move slower than I would if I were just pressing a button, so it's a two-part thing.
"What people often forget is that latency actually is very important for casual games. People think you can swing around, you can do some gestures and that's OK. Actually for a game to be connected to the player, to feel intuitive, it has to have low latency. Latency creates the barrier between the user and the interface."
Mikhailov then goes into an in-depth briefing on just about all the various PlayStation controllers Sony has been responsible for, from the DualShock to the SingStar mics to EyeToy and Buzz. The latter devices all have limited functionality but they are intuitive and familiar to the casual audience. What Move - and by implication the WiiMote - does is to give the flexibility of the DualShock without the abstraction. No longer do you press X to perform a motion like, say, swinging a bat. You simply use the wand to mimic the action.
"It's like a bridge between casual devices and the DualShock," Mikhailov adds. "Some games are still going to be better on the DualShock. We're not trying to take games away from the DualShock in any way. There are some times when you really need buttons and analogue sticks."
According to Mikhailov, it's all about being intuitive, robust, and being able to work in all conditions.
"One big issue with EyeToy we always tried to tackle was lighting. If you have low-light conditions, you can't see the user and you can't track him very well. That's why the spheres are illuminated: you can work in pitch-black conditions. Second thing: it's robust. It goes back to precision: if the interface isn't precise, the user starts to blame the interface and we don't want that.
"It's also intuitive. It won't lose track of you, even if the camera loses track of the sphere it'll compensate with the accelerometers. I can put the controllers behind my back, I can swing backwards, it's not losing tracking. You don't have to worry about it freaking out... there's a one-to-one connection."
Based on yesterday's presentation and gameplay session, if there was one positive you could take away from the event, it was that Move is clearly a far more precise implementation than the Wiimote. Some of the games felt clearly more "tactile" than the Wii equivalents.
Move also takes care of the basics. When I spoke with Kudo Tsunoda at gamescom last year, I was surprised that you couldn't point with Project Natal. As Anton Mikhailov powers up one of his myriad tech demos, it's clear that Move does pretty much everything a developer or gamer could want from it. Armed with twin wands, he's pointing as you would with a light gun or laser pen.
"Doing a pointer is very easy because you have a 3D object in space," Mikhailov says. "All you do is shoot a ray from where you are to the TV. From a programming perspective your math is very simple, it's like a ray-tracer."
The demo simply shows Atari VCS style rectangular blobs moving around the screen as Mikhailov wields the twin controllers. It's clear to see that while pointing works, the targets are jittering. But this is by design.
"You can see the jitter, but the jitter's in my hand," Mikhailov explains. "I have a tripod here. Check this out. If I stabilise myself on the tripod, I can get rid of the jitter. It's in my hand. It's not system jitter. It's not some kind of noise. If you want to make a really accurate shooting game, you keep the jitter in because you want the players to get better at shooting. If you want to make a more casual game, you smooth this out."
"It introduces latency when you smooth things but for a casual user, maybe that's a better thing. As a developer, you have control of this. If you want to make a hardcore game with precise tracking or if you want to make a more casual game, or give some help to the user you can do that."
The next part of the demonstration is exceptionally cool. A puppet is created on-screen that is accurately mimicking Mikhailov's movements. By using a combination of inputs from the Move controllers, combined with head-tracking and what must be some level of interpolation, the demo is entering Project Natal territory. Move is seemingly tracking the entire upper body. Um, wow.
"If you want to do the full body tracking like Natal, you can still do this with the camera," Mikhailov says. "It's all very low latency, one-to-one tracking. We had a fighting game on show based on gesture moves [Motion Fighters]. A lot of people don't want to use gesture moves. You don't have to. It's just a game design choice."
Mikhailov's views on full body motion processing as seen in Natal are intriguing and are difficult to argue with. While Microsoft's controller can scan the entire body well, the bottom line is that a hell of a lot of crucial control information comes from our fingers. Factoring them out is a big gamble to take on something as important as a controller.
"Buttons are important. No system right now can track hands reliably," Mikhailov says in pointed reference to Project Natal. "There's just not the resolution in the cameras, there's not the processing in the current chips. Really, it's many years out before you can do awesome full body-tracking.
"You can do something pretty rough with 3D cameras but you just can't do something with this level of precision. If you want a deeper gameplay experience, you're going to need to have this kind of low-level precision. The biggest thing we learned from EyeToy... if you don't have buttons you can do lots of games but they lack depth."
Over and above the comparisons with the competition, I really want some hard and fast technical information and sensing the appetite for the specs, Mikhailov is only too keen to tell us the good stuff.
"The tracking precision is in the order of millimetres. The tracking distance is about 10 feet from the camera; we have a very wide range," he shares. "The camera's field of view is 75 degrees so you can easily fit one player comfortably and two players as well. The precision on the tracking is about a millimetre, a sub-millimetre in many cases... in general it's a very precise device."
"That means as a developer you don't have to do any smoothing or data mangling. Just put it in your game - it's very good for retrofitting into existing titles."
The Move R&D team often talk about "augmented reality", which is essentially the idea of having a video feed on-screen and adding game elements overlaid onto the captured video. In the case of the best game I saw running yesterday, Move Party, various implements are grafted onto your hand depending on the mini-game you're currently playing. As your attention is on the screen, not your hand, the Move controller essentially transforms into whatever the game developer wants.
It's a really neat trick. If you've seen EyePet you have some idea of how in-game graphics can be transposed into the "real life" world, but with Move this takes on an extra dimension as you're holding the items directly and have a one-to-one relationship with them on-screen.
"You really have to feel it to feel why it's different," says Mikhailov. "A lot people think tracking is tracking. It's more precise. So what? It's the same. When you feel how one-to-one and connected it is to your hand, it's a very different experience. It actually feels like you're in the game as opposed to controlling an avatar in the game."
The use of the camera also has some very cool gaming implications for games that support Move, and for others that don't, such as the forthcoming Gran Turismo 5. Kirk Bender of SCEA explains how the head-tracking and facial recognition works, and what it can do.
"PlayStation Eye can identify individuals based on their facial characteristics. It does this by recognising characteristics like face contours, the position of the eyes, nose, mouth and eyebrows in real-time," he reveals. "It can determine the degree of smiling, the gender, the age. It doesn't give a numeric age - fortunately! It can tell if you're a child or an adult. It can detect whether your eyes are open or closed.
"We have a head-tracking library - we can detect the position of the head even if your back is turned. With the head-tracking you can do viewpoint transformation. If you're playing a driving game or a flying game you can change the view based on which way the head is pointing. If you're playing a stealth game you can look around the corner."
Part of the frustration with the games played at the launch event was the fact that little of this groundbreaking tech was being used at all. Motion Fighter was - for me - a real missed opportunity. Its gesture-based control system felt laggy and Wii-like. Quite why that style of gameplay was chosen when Move is capable of full body motion-tracking left me both dismayed and bewildered.
"The data coming out of this thing is very good so as a developer you don't have to worry about doing much processing on top of it," says Anton Mikhailov. "The libraries we provide are all on SPU so the memory and processor usage is very low. We track up to four controllers in under a frame time on one SPU. The memory requirements are under two megabytes. We've worked this into current titles without any real issue."
Which brings us on quite nicely to the SOCOM 4 demo I played at the Sony press event. It's very similar to the control schemes seen in the likes of Metroid, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and The Conduit on Wii.
"I've spoken to the SOCOM team and they've had troubles because the motion control people sometimes really kick the ass of the DualShock people. It's unfair," he says. "They're having balancing issues and stuff. Some people are really good with the motion controller and some people are really good with the DualShock. Some players work better on some devices and that's cool."
I put this exact point to the attendant Zipper staff member looking after SOCOM 4 players at the press event. I was told that the developer really doesn't want to segregate PS3 gamers by controller, but that they may put interface limitations in as an option on private multiplayer games. They aim to "fine tune" and "balance" the game for release, but I remain unconvinced about how well this will work. The bottom line is that pointing and shooting with the Move must surely be faster than turning and shooting with the standard controller.
Of course, SOCOM 4 was also the only game present to use the so-called Move Sub-Controller, which is the PS3 equivalent to the Wii's nunchuk (though we don't know if it contains any accelerometers as the Nintendo peripheral does).
The fact that its design is so similar - albeit furnished with many more buttons - is just one of the factors that led many people I spoke to at the press event to conclude that the Move is almost like a Sony rendition of a potential Wii HD. But the team were keen to point out that the camera/sensor combo has far more implications on gameplay than many people realise.
"When you go out of camera view, the inertial sensors can be used to keep track of the controller. Wii MotionPlus has similar sensors and it loses tracking after a while," observes Anton Mikhailov.
"When you're going off screen and coming back, the sensors are good enough. The accelerometers and gyroscopes can give you positional data for a time. The problem is that they drift over time. Over short periods of time, they're great. That's why a lot of Wii games use gestures. But for long periods of time we use the camera to correct the data."
What this does mean, however, is that all Move games require calibration, a system that isn't required on the more pick-up-and-play Wii. According to the Sony team, you simply stand (or sit) in front of the camera, press a button once and that's it. But last night, calibration proved to be far more intrusive.
As I stood in line to get a go on Motion Fighter, the girl playing was having a torrid time getting her gestures recognised. Calibration was blamed and the system was reset. Playing Move Party, a ceiling spotlight appeared to be causing some recognition issues during one gameplay session, again necessitating a recalibration.
This was all pre-alpha software in hardly the best of lighting conditions, and for the most part Move performed well. However, Sports Champions required a two-point calibration each and every time an event was chosen. It felt overly intrusive and I was keen to tackle the team on this issue.
"There are different kinds of calibration," Anton Mikhailov responds. "There's system-level calibration. That's what defines the user environment and checks the lighting. It does general sphere calibration and image calibration etc. The thing you were seeing for sports games is actually calibrating to your body size.
"That's game-specific. If you have long arms, we really want to make sure the body looks correct. For that game in particular, they're trying to do a very accurate sports simulation, so when you're serving or swinging, everything works right."
I have to say that the tech demos the Sony team offered up were clearly far more indicative of the potential of the Move device. Some of the games I'd played the night before had showcased the precision of the controller, but they seemed bereft of the concepts that would really show the wand in its best light.
Sports Champions' table tennis was pretty good, but it felt artificially slow compared to the real thing and despite the claims made by the tech team, it did appear to have some controller latency, as did all the games (the non one-to-one Motion Fighter being the worst in my view). I did get some 720p60 cam video which should allow me to get some idea of controller latency once I'm back in the Digital Foundry lair post-GDC. More on that another time.
But right now, it's not the tech that concerns me, it's the quality of some of the games. The Shoot was typical lightgun fare and aside from a bizarre game mode activated by spinning around on the spot (!), it wasn't particularly noteworthy. Indeed, the ancient Virtua Cop seemed to have more innovative gameplay, particularly in terms of score attack mechanics.
And quite why Brunswick Pro Bowling was at the event at all still leaves me somewhat puzzled. It's a game where you have to mimic the animation of the character on-screen, as opposed to your avatar following your motions. More than that, it's basically a conversion of an existing Wii game - what kind of message does that send out to gamers and press exactly?
Far more engaging and original was Studio Cambridge's TV Superstar, a celeb-based (bear with me) series of mini-games designed to showcase all of Move's various features. There's some nice camera work: take a pic and then build a personalised avatar/celeb for the game. Mini-game fun then ensues.
And fun it truly is - my personal favourite was a game that was basically Pain meets Hole in the Wall. Use Move to choose a target, hold the trigger button and pull yourself back on an enormous catapult, release, and off you fly. The target changes into the shape you need to position your avatar into for impact. Simple, fun, and making good use of the Move wand: surprisingly enjoyable stuff.
The game Sony chose to showcase at the developer event - Move Party - is clearly the cream of the crop. It uses the augmented reality concept extremely well, it makes the most of the one-to-one motion control, it's got universal appeal and it deserves to be the key candidate for inclusion in the $100 Move/PSEye/game combo box that Sony is planning as the main Move SKU at launch.
At the Move launch event I loved the initial, flashy presentation, and enjoyed the implementation of the motion controller in LittleBigPlanet and was a touch dismayed that Sony didn't choose to showcase it as a playable game. But while SOCOM proved it could "do" core games while Move Party and TV Superstar showed plenty of promise, I was disappointed by the lack of creativity in much of the other software.
While PlayStation 3 clearly has the superior hardware, matching or indeed surpassing Nintendo's genius in game design is going to be the key challenge, just as it will be for the Xbox 360 developers currently beavering away on their Project Natal launch titles.
But the right people at Sony are clearly having some great ideas, which hopefully we'll see translated into stronger games than many of those seen so far.
"We're excited about genres that have been typically detached from console, like RTS," says Anton Mikhailov. "All those genres require precise pointer control. This is something we have now on the PS3. Actually I hooked up this device through some hackery to a PC to play a bunch of games. I actually played Starcraft... I could actually play, not just screw around but play.
"It's a testament to how robust this interface is for even the more hardcore game. It's so intuitive that some developers have hooked this up to Maya for modelling, and they actually prefer it over a mouse. You can have camera control in one hand and object control with another hand. You can do some really neat interface stuff."
It's comments like these that give me faith that PlayStation Move is going to be a success. In theory, Sony's motion controller can easily exceed the capabilities of the Wii MotionPlus and also mimic some of the headline functionality of Project Natal. It acknowledges the importance of the human body as a control interface, but is based on the basic common-sense principle that our hands and fingers are a crucial component in communicating with the game.
The thinking is there, the hardware is there. Now it's just a case of getting the games right.