A while back, programmer extraordinaire Johnny Chung Lee wowed gamers with his implementation of Head Tracking for the Nintendo Wii. The video showed that it was capable of tracking movements quickly and accurately enough that the picture coming from the TV looked almost holographic. All this was achieved using only the IR/pointer technology of the Wii remote and sensor bar, and not the accelerometers. The obvious shortcoming was that it required users to swap the positions of the equipment; essentially turning the Wii remote into a static IR camera to be mounted near the TV, a position completely at odds with its role as a motion sensitive controller. While this was usable in a hacked demo, it was tough to imagine it being a feasible option for regular gamers.
Subsequently at GDC ’08, Head Tracking made another appearance, and this time it was the EA team in charge of Boom Blox that raised everyone’s hopes. It was reported that the technology was to be included in the game as an ‘Easter Egg’, which required the user to again place the Wii remote near the TV, and for the user to hold the sensor bar, or more realistically, wear a a pair of specs rigged with LEDs. Sadly as the game’s development continued, the feature was quietly canned. At the time many assumed that the annexing of the feature was down to EA realizing how few people would experience an ‘Easter Egg’ that required such a convoluted setup and custom hardware. Or even that Nintendo did not want gamers to use the Wii’s peripherals in such an odd manner. But now a third option also seems likely; perhaps Nintendo let slip to EA that hardware was coming that would make the whole thing simpler and more accessible?
With MotionPlus, the Wii remote gains the ability to be tracked 1:1 in 3D space using the gyro corrected output from the accelerometers. With the peripheral, Head Tracking becomes a reality as the Wii remote can stay in the gamer’s hand, and the sensor bar on the TV. After initially calibrating its position, for example by pointing at the sensor bar and pushing a button, the Wii would from that point on be able to track the movement and orientation of the Wii remote, and recreate the holographic effect that Lee produced so effectively in his groundbreaking demo.
Only one hurdle remains for developers, and that is the issue of Head Tracking as opposed to Hand Tracking. While manipulating the view of the in-game environment based on real-world movement is a smart feature all by itself, the ‘holographic’ effect is only really achieved by tracking the movements of the gamer’s head, and not the hand. This essentially means that the Wii remote has to be either held on the head (which obviously can only be done for short periods of time), or more realistically for longer play times, it needs to be mounted on the head.
The most likely scenario is that a developer will include Head Tracking as an ‘Easter Egg’ as EA had initially planned, and that the game will simply ask the user to hold the Wii remote close to their head for the duration of the experience. But if a developer is bold/silly enough, we may have to hold on to our Wii hats people, because some truly funky head gear maybe waiting to once again test the limits of our gaming inhibitions…