Every couple of years there seems to be a new gimmick pushed by manufacturers of videogames hardware. Ever since the 8-bit days we’ve seen robot buddies, light guns, balance boards, motion controllers and attempts to popularise 3D. Most recently, as the cost of the technology has plummeted, we’re seeing a big push for what has become known as “second screen” devices.
The technology as it relates to videogames might have its earliest foundations in the Dreamcast’s VMU but we’ve come a long way since then. The rise of smartphone use to look up salient facts via wikipedia, IMDB and similar information sources while playing games or watching movies and television programs on home consoles has informed the desire to shape that second stream of related content – no doubt with an eye to controlling the message (and any advertising revenue) that’s displayed.[drop]My initial reaction to the idea was that it would just be another gimmick which would rise and fall, with certain entertaining or interesting – but ultimately disposable – elements along the way, before it became a side-note in videogame history. But the Wii U GamePad is in the process of changing my mind.
It’s not that I’m finding every use of the GamePad to be useful or even comfortable. There are plenty of times when it’s awkward to split my attention between two screens which are relatively far apart. But when it is used well, it’s a game-changer. It’s more useful than motion controls have ever been and it certainly does more for a game than 3D ever could. This gimmick might just be useful enough to stick around.
At this time, each of the three platform holders is approaching the problem in a different way. Microsoft expects you to own an expensive tablet or smartphone to use the system they’re calling “Smartglass.” Sony expects you to buy another expensive handheld gaming device – the Vita – to partake in any second screen action. But there’s a change coming. There’s a new generation expected from Microsoft and Sony – second screens will, I believe, have a notable presence in this new generation.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect users, who are putting down the sort of sums of money that a new console generation will demand, to spend more on another device. So I don’t think Sony will continue with the Vita as their second screen. At least not solely – allowing it as an option, or for use as extra controllers in multiplayer games, would potentially be a smart move to help aid the handheld’s poor sales so far. But the PlayStation 4 is going to have to ship with a second screen in the box. That means a significant change – or at least addition – to the DualShock.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to PlayStation fans. We know that Sony looked at redesigning the DualShock before the PlayStation 3 was launched, the prototype boomerang controller’s presence in early appearances of the console implies that the idea of a change in design might have gone quite far before eventually being abandoned in favour of sticking with the much loved ergonomic design of the PS2‘s DualShock in their SixAxis controller which remained rumble-free for the first phase of the PS3’s life.[drop2]I believe that the Vita holds the key to Sony’s strategy here. The usability experience, developer familiarity and patents they hold with regard to the two touchscreen surfaces on the Vita will stand them in good stead when trying to put together a new layer of control surfaces on the PS4’s controller. The experience and infrastructure they already have in place for manufacturing the Vita’s screen will potentially make that aspect of a new home console controller much more manageable during research and development too.
The second screen on Sony’s future PlayStation controller will, I think, be smaller than Nintendo’s but, with a higher resolution and multi-touch capability, it will have more uses and a more premium feel than Nintendo’s cheap-feeling GamePads. Hopefully it’ll have a better battery life too.
It’s all conjecture at the moment but we’ve seen rumours that there are big, radical plans for the new console’s controller and we know that Sony (and Microsoft) is also looking at biometric controllers that can sense reactions from nerves (this Sony patent published as recently as October). My experience with the Wii U’s GamePad has begun to make me much more comfortable with the idea of a “baked-in” second screen and Sony’s experience with the Vita puts them in a unique position to really get the implementation of it just right.
The next generation of Sony hardware – the PlayStation 4 – is only a few months away but the box that goes under your television might be the least striking thing about it. The thought that the next generation of console hardware from Sony might not be sold to new users purely on the graphical power it can display but on the widening in scope of experiences is incredibly exciting. A second screen offers precisely that kind of space for innovation.