Two Sundays ago I wrote about new technology, and a fair amount about Microsoft’s SmartGlass. It’s one example of the coveted second screen, and with this week’s announcement of the Surface it seems like a good time to revisit it and expand upon my opinions of this technology. To be fair, the Surface isn’t the only inspiration for this article; this week also saw my acquisition of the current generation of iPod Nano, thanks to Apple’s recall of the original version of their tiny MP3 player.[drop]The possibilities presented by the iPod Nano genuinely excite me, although with the lack of Bluetooth on the current hardware they simply aren’t possible; perhaps the low energy protocols available with Bluetooth 4.0 will allow integration of the technology into a future generation (if one ever comes).
Many of these concepts have been realised by smart watches, such as the Kickstarter funded Pebble, but it would seem odd to me if Apple hadn’t at least explored a way of wirelessly connecting an iPod Nano and an iPhone, particularly given the avaliability of watch bands for the Nano.
The uses for a Nano like second screen are clear, notifications from your phone popping up on your wrist being the most obvious. Certainly there’s not a huge amount of hassle involved in pulling your phone out of your pocket to check such notifications, but it’s simply more convenient to look at a watch-like device, particularly if there are no cables connected to it; I don’t know about you but I’m endlessly pushing the cable for my headphones back into my pocket after disturbing it to check a text message.
More typically though, second screen technology doesn’t use a direct connection between the two devices, instead using home networks or the internet to allow communication and interactivity.
Microsoft showed many examples of this in their press conference, although I must say that some of the examples weren’t quite as expansive as I would have liked. In the past I’ve seen great examples where a laptop or tablet gets content that expands on the show you’re watching pushed to it, somehow the Game of Thrones map didn’t really seem particularly interesting.
Given this is TSA I should probably talk about the gaming implications of second screen technology, and this leads us, quite naturally, onto the Wii U. Yes, yes I know it’s not powerful enough and Nintendo don’t know how to run a press conference and it’s for kids and all of that. Are you done now? Good.
See the Wii U is genuinely interesting as a bit of kit, even if Nintendo seem to have an internal bet on how weird they can make their demos and get away with it. Concepts like using the GamePad as a motion tracker in Aliens: Colonial Marines may seem gimmicky, but I firmly believe these sort of applications can enhance the experience you have, augmenting your connection to the reality a game is trying to build.[drop2]There is a worry with second screen content though, although one that only applies to the 360 and PS3. Whether developers are relying on a SmartGlass device or a Vita to enhance their game, the problem is there’s simply no guarantee it will be there. Much like including Move or Kinect functionality, it’s an extra (at least right now) rather than something that you know will be there.
In this respect Microsoft’s platform agnostic approach is probably better than relying on the presence of a Vita; by letting SmartGlass run on iOS and Android they significantly increase the odds of someone having a device that can connect. It’s still by no means guaranteed though, and that’s clearly where the Wii U will have a leg up.
Will the Surface change this? I doubt it. Yes, it’s another platform for SmartGlass to run on but Microsoft certainly aren’t going to be bundling that hardware they announced this week with the next Xbox. Even the rumours circulating this week about the inclusion of another form factor of Surface tablet in the next Xbox seem very unlikely.
Sure, you can pick up a reasonably competent Android tablet for less than £100, but even something as lowly as that seems fairly prohibitive in terms of cost. It would certainly improve the penetration of SmartGlass, but it seems fundamentally against the nature of Microsoft’s approach to the technology; the whole point is that they don’t need to make the tablet.
Look, I know that many of you don’t buy the hype about second screens, and that’s fair enough. However, personally I think they open up so many possibilities and exciting gameplay experiences that they could well become the norm. It may well be a “Better with Kinect” style approach for a while, but as the penetration of smartphones and tablets increases we could well see things shift significantly to the point where a game that doesn’t include a second screen will become the outlier.