Sunday Thoughts: The Second Screen Solution

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.



  1. Options.

    If you give a developer options they’ll use it in new & exciting ways, for me ZombiU showed the best use of second screen gaming at E3, at a lower level I think there’s also a market for game guides & companion apps.

    Nintendo will be on to a winner here because the second screen will be included by default, as we’ve seen with PSMove (& maybe Pro pads on WiiU) not including things by default can make them an after thought that struggles to gain meaningful traction, but Microsoft seem to have the right idea here by allowing their second screen solution to be an app on any smartphone that the overwhelming majority of their install-base will already own. Will be interesting if Sony respond to this by continuing with their Sony silos approach ie. you need to buy another bit of Sony kit to make use of it thus limiting its appeal outside of Sony fanboy bubble.

    Back to the experiences… We’ve not nailed motion gaming yet, Move lacks a certain amount of support that only a lot of effort & money can change, whilst Kinect lacks fidelity that a ‘Kinect2’ on a NeXtBox may change.

    Microsoft jumping into this market doesn’t sound to me like they’re trying to get the jump on Nintendo, but instead they are pre-empting Apple’s expected move in the TV market which would leverage its huge install-base of iPhone, iPod Touch & iPads to second screen gaming… and any media advantages that a second screen can bring too, in fact Microsoft’s approach at E3 was geared mainly around its media uses.

    • I’m sure you remember however like with the Wii’s lifecycle, that unless its one of a few creative third-party developers or Nintendo who are making a game, the controller won’t be put to very interesting uses. Sure, other publisher owned and inept devs will put SOMETHING on the screen to add a feature on the game case, but the few developers willing to be creative will be, :x.

  2. I’ve used a second monitor for PC gaming for ages, and obviously it’s nice to have maps, stats and a Firefox window open on the second screen but is this really something console gamers want/need?
    While I do like the idea of a little Oled screen on the controller to provide stats (like my PC keyboard has), especially if it keeps the main display uncluttered, any more than that takes away the essential “simplicity” of console gaming – or maybe that’s just me?

  3. No second screen for me please, unless it’s like a PC setup with them next to each other in the same place.
    Any situation where we have to look away from the screen at a controller (like the WiiU) or a tablet/handheld console (MS and Sony) is going to break immersion from whatever game I’m playing.

    That’s why I don’t see ZombiU as being a decent horror- by virtue of it’s controls, it’s going to remind you it’s a game every time you look away. Leading to a poor to average at best horror, and a game which just won’t suck you in.

    • Felt in ZombiU it looked more than fine and added to the sensation, would also think that in something like Watch Dogs a second screen could be the hacking pad… there is definitely the potential for it to be more immersive, not less.

      • Just the act of looking away is going to make it less immersive.
        We’re not talking a second PC monitor which is right next to it, or a 2nd DS screen.
        There’s going to be too much seperation, really hate the idea of it.

      • Watch a TV, glance down at the pad… It’s not like it’s on the floor, it’s above your lap… I don’t know where you hold your pad when you play?

        You don’t even need to move to your head

      • The difference is I don’t have to look at my controller when I play.
        I’ll have to look at a 2nd screen though.

      • You might find it’s okay, Col. The immersion is still maintained as our eyes flit down to a second screen which contains pertinent data/graphics to the game we’re playing. Also, it’s such a quick movement that we won’t really take anything else in anyway. Equally, if it’s essential stuff then hopefully it’ll feel like a good necessity not a bad one. Fingers crossed on that, eh? :-)

      • Having a dedicated map in your hands or being able to manage your inventory without having to pause the game actually enhances the immersion in my opinion…

      • I personally think that having to look down and take your eyes off the screen in ZombiU adds to the tension as you’ll keep having to look up. If anything you can argue that it adds to the immersion as you have to take your eyes off the ‘world’ to look at what you’re doing, meanwhile the world continues.

      • Next you’ll be saying that bad controls are a gameplay feature to increase tension…

      • Isn’t that Resident Evil’s main strategy?

    • looking at a second screen for to long makes me feel sick.

    • Honestly, I too am sceptical of the second screen strategy of Nintendo and Microsoft. There is a reason ‘keep your eye on the ball’ is good advice.

  4. I don’t see it as enhancement so much as distraction for the most part, and the rest is just novelty value. Most of what i’ve seen seems completely unnecessary and quite frankly pointless when you can simply pause the game and do the same thing on a single screen. The chunky fisher-price toy look doesn’t help either.
    However, there will be plenty who won’t see it as a gimmick and will instead see it as a ‘new way to play’ and will flock to buy the Wii U.
    The truth is though, we found the optimum way to play years ago with one screen and a dualshock controller – a controller design that’s been copied/transferred to most other game consoles since then. Heck even the Gamepad has sticks and buttons – why?-because that’s what you need for actually playing games.
    We’ve had the ‘new way to play’ thing before… 3D..Move…Kinect… and i think as with those we’ll probably find that there will be just be a select handful of games/apps that will be a good fit for this newer way to play.
    I’m happy with the way i currently play – at least until we get proper VR or a holodeck ;)

    • What he said :)

      It’s all good with new ideas but the thing is new ideas are only good if it’s better than ones what come before. Until it’s as fun/easy to play as the current joypad style gaming then well it’s more of a distraction/ downgrade to gaming rather than anything what most people would use.

      And this is coming from someone who is literally as I type this at my PC have an iphone/ipad and a vita in front of me (for real). Disagea 3 paused btw :D.

    • I can really see the benefit of a second screen. Not having to pause the game to look at your map or your inventory is actually enhancing the immersion. I also liked the touch screen implementations in Rayman Origins on the Vita. On the Wii U you will be able to make use of these controls in Rayman Legends.
      I don’t know… It’s not like traditional gaming is going away. If people don’t like a second screen they are not forced to buy into it. I just like the fact that they are constantly looking for ways to enhance the gaming experience. My PS3 is not going anywhere but that also doesn’t mean that I won’t have room for a second console.

  5. I really think if Sony want to use a second screen set up they should use it through PlayStation mobile, then it’s available for vita and phones. They can obviously add greater functionality through the vita having analogue sticks and buttons.

    • Android compatibility is a must. There are simply not enough Vitas out there to make it interesting for devs.

      • Vita is growing well imo Playstation Mobile will be great it is for Vita & Android.

  6. A tablet is very important to me because you can not use a laptop while standing up.

  7. So many times there are new products that exist to ‘enhance’ the user experience, however the majority of the time they end up detracting from it or become an addition that over time loses its novelty and simply becomes more effort to use than the experience is worth.

    So far every new introduction has ended up with the majority of users simply returning to the simple, tried and tested, gamepad / mouse / keyboard; they simply work too well….You can’t expect to permanently ‘enhance’ the console-gaming experience while the key control method remains a gamepad, this can only be done with a flat-out replacement schema that is almost completely removed from the traditional button pressing that simply works too well to sustain any additional ‘enhancement’ beyond the initial period of novelty..

    • I’ve gone off on a tangent about control schemes there but the concept remains true that once the novelty wears off and additional screen uses will most probably become more effort than they are worth to most, regardless of how little effort it may seem to be on paper.

  8. I like the idea of a second screen and it’s actually been around in a social form for years, I’m thinking of stuff like Autolog, Battlelog and Apps for iOS and Android have surely got to be the way forward? Maps, inventories, engine management, phone calls… It would be amazing to be able to get your missions in GTA streamed to your actual phone :)

    • I’d never considered that GTA option, but it’d be great!

  9. Personally I love having that extra screen when playing on the 3DS so I’m all for Nintendo pushing the idea into the world of home consoles. ZombiU completely sold me in this regard. Having to take your eyes off the main screen to check your inventory and hack doors all in real-time really adds to the tension I think.

  10. Dead links all over the post??..

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