Past, Present and Future of Input Technologies

With TSA now taking a look at other consoles, and being recently invited to write for the website, I thought I would bring in to light one of the major things that all video games, no matter the device have in common: Input.

No matter how you play input is always required due to the nature of the experience.
I’d like to bring to the table a discussion on the history of input devices, how they have evolved and the possible future.

I started my gaming experience at the hands of a BBC Micro and Chucky Egg. Whilst the BBC did have a joystick option, this wasn’t something I had the luxury of. Of course video games go even further back, arcade games were around for years. In 1971, students at Stanford University set up the Galaxy Game, a coin-operated version of the Spacewar computer game. Joysticks and a single button was all that was required. Again the same on the BBC which I was later introduced to. However the home users of the video game, sparse as they may have been were widely used to the old keyboard. Several BBC style Console/Computers were around for a few years, Spectrum, Amstrad and Atari to name a few. Amstrad adopted the more modern feel of a computer with the desktop box, monitor/TV and separate keyboard, probably leading the way in modern computer design at the time. Most of these relics had the usual keyboard input with a joystick and occasionally a mouse being involved. However mice weren’t really involved till much later.


Then came the Sega Master system – a brand new computing idea for the whole world; a home computer just for games. With two pads, a very small, totally non-ergonomically designed, box pad with a D-pad and two buttons. There were some variation on the design but that was essentially the basics. A very simple very small pad, remember this – I’m going to come back to it later.

Then spawned many different consoles, Nintendo started its run with the old Nes and Snes, again with a similar style pad. Sega then started to think about extended, more comfortable game play and released the Mega Drive, with a D-Pad and 4 buttons which later became 7. This new pad was ergonomically designed, again quite small and fit well in the hand. I have to admin at this point I used to use my left thumb on the D-Pad and my fingers on the buttons.

After the Mega Drive my love for computers took me toward PC’s and the possibilities they held. PC’s were a little behind with the input technology though. With keyboards still being the regular input. Soundcards started turning up with a new port for joysticks. My guess is this was to improve the value of owning a soundcard. They started to move in the direction of gaming cards as proper sounds started to become a core element to video games. Computers could now playback music, proper music in game. Michael Jackson released a game for the mega drive with his music in the levels. PC’s now had the introduction of joysticks, and let me tell you I got through quite a few. I remember playing Mech Warrior II using two joysticks at the same time. With Yaw and Pitch and Throttle and Twist – joysticks took a massive leap forward in Video game input. However in my mind the mouse was about to make the biggest leap. I remember playing Lemmings at school with a mouse, a really new and innovative way of playing a game. Then the first person shooters became popular with Duke Nukem and Doom only having ever used the keyboards, the newer generation of computer games started using the mouse to point the gun.

QUAKE! What an awesome game that was at the time. Then came Quake II at around the same time as Nintendo released Golden Eye. Nintendo with their thumb stick controls and me playing Quake in full 3d controllable glory with the Mouse. I really do think the Mouse revolutionised FPS game play in a whole new way, that and the fact PCs had the graphics power consoles could only dream of.

Over the years the inputs never really changed. Joysticks got more buttons for the PC and consoles got additional thumb sticks, D-Pads, buttons and triggers. Until we basically ended up with what we have today. Along the way though we have had some really “interesting” control methods, look at the Jaguar 64 controller; seriously WTF? Remember what I was saying about the old Sega and Nes controllers being small and (later on ergonomically designed) what technology did was a backward step, controls are supposed to get easier, smaller and simpler not turn into bricks. Then there was the old Xbox controller, it’s HUGE! Still it’s not difficult to hold and use… as long as you have reinforced arm support. Sony got it right first time, with the Playstation; nothing has really changed in the design of the input, just the functionality got better; hats off to the designer of that one.

Nintendo, obviously, took a huge step out of the arena with the Wii. Great idea, in my mind, not really well used. If they had just released the Motion plus style controller first that would have been so much better. I went out and spent £400 on a Wii and games when if first came out because I foolishly assumed you would be able to swing a sword and even better – a Light sabre? Awesomeness was not forthcoming, and I am loathed to actually get a Motion Plus because I feel cheated out of my Jedi dreams with the first one.

So where are they all going, Sony announced their Wand, MS – Natal and Nintendo who knows? I have to say, and by all means put your own views forward, but Natal looks flawed from the beginning. Imagine driving a car with no actual pedal, your foot is going to get tired of just being there with no support. What about FPS, how do you point and pull the trigger? MS may really surprise me but I doubt it. Sony’s Wand looks amazing; the sword fighting, the drawing, all of it looks really well done, but is it what we should be expecting?

Back in the 90’s I had an experience of 3 different virtual reality environments. One was a RAF Hercules C-130K simulator, another was a RAF Typhoon enemy tracking and targeting, voice controlled, virtual reality HUD prototype and finally a virtual gaming environment with a helmet in a shop. Where is all this stuff now? Back in the 90’s I was experiencing this stuff, and today we have a pair of goggles that simulate a 50” screen at an awful resolution. I would have thought the consumer market would have driven some really nifty virtual reality kit by now. Instead you can get a nice (heavy) pair of “3D glasses” from Nvidia that flash either eye piece independently so the computer that’s connected can show each eye a different image and create a 3D effect. Epileptics beware! Actually the concept worked really well, but the glasses were heavy, attached by wire and you were still limited to the monitor.

Recently, highly directed pixels are being used to create the same 3d effect you see at the cinema using polarised light. Ok I guess unless you’re sitting at 91deg’s to the screen, and you’re still limited to looking at a monitor.

Can you imagine a VR helmet and decent resolution with gyros? FPS games here we come, shooting enemies just by looking at them, awesomeness awaits my next ridiculous £400 spend, I just hope next time its all worth it.

I want Star Trek holodecks and I want them now!