Sony reveals what makes PlayStation Move tick

GDC 2010: SCEA's research team shows off the PS3 motion controller, from untapped potential to unfortunate limitations.

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Who was there: Sony Computer Entertainment of America platform research manager David Coombes, developer support specialist Kirk Bender, and R&D researcher Anton Mikhailov delivered an hour-long programming track session meant to introduce developers to the Move motion controller.

Sony is hoping to Move you later this year.
Sony is hoping to Move you later this year.

What they talked about: Coombes started off his talk by explaining how the motion controller works. The controller itself has inertial sensors built into it, including an accelerometer and a gyrometer that sense motion on three axes. However, since those sensors have some fundamental limitations, Coombes said they had to add the illuminated ball on the end of the controller and the camera peripheral to help the system track controller movement better. In addition to helping with tracking, Coombes said the ball color could be changed to identify player one from player two, three, or four, as well as provide gameplay feedback. For instance, when taking damage in a first-person shooter, the ball might flash red.

Mikhailov took over, explaining how Sony is always on the lookout for new interfaces like the PlayStation Eye, the Buzz controller, or the SingStar microphone. The reason behind all of those interfaces was to deliver new experiences to the end user. He said they wind up doing well in their own markets, even if hardcore gamers don't really show interest in them. For example, he said Sony had sold over 10 million cameras, even if hardcore gamers might not even know the peripheral exists.

The three key ingredients for a deep game are expressivity, precision, and immediacy in the interface, Mikhailov said. But if a developer wants to make a casual game, those qualities all take a backseat to an intuitive interface. Expressive controls can increase the richness and variety of the game experience, which hardcore audiences demand. Accuracy is crucial for hardcore players because they want their commands conveyed instantly to the game. If the system is misinterpreting the player intent because of a bad interface, traditional gamers will get upset. The same issue is in play with immediacy; if there's too much input lag or latency, hardcore gamers will get frustrated. Mikhailov did note that immediacy is also important in casual games, but primarily in how it aids intuitiveness.

What makes a game intuitive is that the interface does what it looks like it should do: The microphone in SingStar acts as a real microphone would. Immediacy is hurt whenever there's abstraction in the control scheme. For example, pushing the X button to swing a bat in a game is not intuitive at all. It needs to be told to the user or discovered through trial and error.

The motion controller is a bridge between the different options, Mikhailov said. Its expressivity and immediacy are both exceptional, with high degrees of intuitiveness and precision. It allows the depth and expressivity of a Dual Shock, but retains the intuitive qualities of something like the Buzz controller or the SingStar microphone.

Going into the design of the controller, Mikhailov mentioned the one big action button on the top, which gives players an easy first option for what they want to do. It also has an analog "T button" on the back for squeezing actions. Rumble functionality will provide some tactile feedback, and it is wireless with a rechargeable battery (but no speaker). As for the sub-controller, Mikhailov glossed over it quickly, saying the audience was already familiar with the idea. Delving into a bit of tech talk, the designer said the camera has a field of about 75 degrees, with XY tracking down to millimeters and Z-axis tracking to a few centimeters.

Move integrates with the PlayStation Eye.
Move integrates with the PlayStation Eye.

Mikhailov gave a tech demo of the system using a pair of Move controllers. He explained how lighting was a problem developers always had with the PS Eye, something that was addressed well by having the illuminated balls on the end of the controller. He next demonstrated the precision of the controllers, spinning them around rapidly to show how CG swords on the screen followed his hands perfectly and didn't wobble or float regardless of how he changed the angles or spun them. One test even had the system "draw" a virtual Move controller over the actual Move controllers in Mikhailov's hand, which drew laughter from the audience.

The balls on the controller are RGB LEDs, which Mikhailov showed off by switching the colors on the fly all along a rainbow spectrum. A "puppet" demo he showed off combined the motion controllers with the PS Eye body-and-head tracking, where the demoer's actions appeared to match up one for one with a third-person dungeon exploration game onscreen. He pointed out that the buttons on the Move controller allowed for exceptional precision with actions, saying a strictly camera-based system like Natal would have difficulty with accurate tracking of fine movements.

The potential of the Move controllers goes beyond the tech demos Mikhailov showed off. He also mentioned the potential to emulate multi-touch control schemes by using two of the controllers. He said with a little hacking, he was able to hook the controllers up to a PC and legitimately play Starcraft. Some PS3 developers have also used the Move controllers to help them model in Maya as opposed to using a mouse.

Bender then took over to talk about more technical tools for developers to use. He said developers would be able to take advantage of face-detection technology that can recognize and remember multiple users, as well as determine a user's age (roughly), gender, whether or not the user is smiling, if his or her eyes are open or closed, and so on. He also said developers can use head tracking to determine the body position of the player even when the player's face is hidden or his or her back is turned to the camera.

Bender said the technology could be used to base in-game characters on a player's head and face, as well as change the view based on the way a player is leaning in the camera. He suggested a quiz game where players could answer by nodding yes or shaking their heads no, or perhaps a shooter where players smile to equip the BSG, "big smile gun."

Mikhailov took over to show off an actual game, Move Party!. He started it up from the PS3 dashboard and calibrated it to the system simply by pointing the controller at the camera and pushing the action button. A flash of the camera later and the controller was locked in. Mikhailov and Coombes took their pictures and said their names into the PS Eye microphone, and then it was time for the first minigames.

The first game challenged the pair to use a fan to blow falling chickens safely into their nests. Coombes wound up slaughtering his share of fowls, as most chicks either plummeted to their doom or met a gruesome fate in the spinning blades of his fan. Mikhailov easily bested him, showing off tricks like floating a single chick above the fan for a prolonged period of time to get a hangtime bonus.

When asked about the competitive balance issues raised by games that use either the Move controller or the Dual Shock, Mikhailov brought up SOCOM 4, saying that different people excel with each method. Recently, he said some of the testers using motion controllers were able to crush their Dual Shock-using counterparts.

Mikhailov also demonstrated the game's ability to track the Move controller even when the ball was hidden from the camera. For short periods of time, developers can rely on the inertial sensors in the controller to keep track of where it is fairly accurately. However, when Mikhailov held his hand over the ball and waved the controller around, the system lost track of it after a few seconds.

Quote: "These interfaces aren't bad because they're lacking these hardcore features. They're good because they [lack them]."--Mikhailov, on criticisms leveled against the SingStar microphone, PS Eye camera, and Buzz remote control.

Takeaway: The goal of the demonstration was clearly to send developers away convinced that the Move controller could do whatever developers wanted of it. It supposedly offers the precision of standard control schemes with the pick-up-and-play intuitiveness of the Wii or (in theory) Project Natal. While there were hiccups in the demonstration (Coombes accidentally hit the PS button during one demo, causing the game to stop and the XMB to surface), the audience seemed suitably impressed with the thought that went into the Move's design.

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