No Controller? No Glasses? No Problem

The big news popping out of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo was more about what was missing than what was there.

Microsoft's motion-controlling Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360 turns your body into the controller for video games, making you the puppet master of your own virtual avatar in a slew of video game experiences. Nintendo's new 3DS portable console includes a top screen that can show full 3D images, video and gameplay without the need to wear those sometimes dorky, sometimes expensive, but always annoying glasses.

Both experiences left me momentarily confused, as if becoming the center of a magic act but still not seeing how it was done.

It was my first experience with Nintendo's 3DS, which doesn't yet have a release date or price, and that amazing 3D screen that kicked off my astonishment.

Following a concise, but powerful presentation by the heads of Nintendo of Japan and Nintendo of America, I found myself ushered quickly into a back room of Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre. The second floor of this back room was packed with journalists, folks in business suits and women holding prototypes of the 3DS. These sleek devices, a bit smaller than the DSi, were connected by a steel cable to a steel-lined belt that was padlocked to the women's waists. The low-tech security system ensured that the only way a person could make off with the yet-to-be released device was by dragging one of these women with them.

Each handheld had a different application or game loaded on it. That initial moment of looking into a flat screen and seeing real depth borders on alarming. For a split second my mind seemed to try to process how I could be seeing this sort of third-dimension without the help of glasses.

Once I adjusted, I noticed that the effect, while stunning, could easily fall into the realm of gimmicky. I also noticed that the technology required the user to hold the 3DS at about the same distance from their face at all times and not tilt it wildly to either side. In other words, unlike the big-screen DSi XL, this is a one-person experience.

Two days later, I revisited the machine, this time playing a few games using the technology. While a developer could easily stray into the realm of goofy, needless, pop-out 3D, the games I played used the 3D well, adding to the experience that was meaningful.

Microsoft's Kinect, due out in November at a yet to be set price, didn't blow me away as much as the 3DS originally. That's not surprising. We've had a year to get used to the idea of the technology that uses a special three-lens camera to track your movements at the skeletal level.

But when you stop to think about it, Kinect is as amazing as — perhaps even more amazing — than Nintendo's glasses-free 3D gaming. Kinect turns you into a controller.

Standing in front of the television you just need to move, without holding a thing, to play a dance game, play sports, do yoga, exercise, or have an adventure. Kinect transforms those movements very quickly into the motions of your on screen avatar. It's unsettling when you think about it, but it happens so quickly, so effortlessly, that you rarely do think about it. You just play.

All we've seen so far of Kinect are casual games, experiences like what you might find on the Wii. But we're told deeper games, more meaningful play is coming.

Sony's presentation was loaded with information, new games, details about their 3D and motion gaming, but both are things we've seen before, not the surprising takes on the technology that Microsoft and Nintendo were showing us.

Sony's showing wasn't as spectacular specifically for that reason. They seem to be doing the exact opposite of what Nintendo and Microsoft are doing: Telling us to make a big investment in new hardware with Move controllers for motion and 3D televisions for 3D if you want to play their latest games using that technology in a way we're all already familiar with.

There's nothing magical about that at all.

Let's just hope that Microsoft and Nintendo's magic doesn't turn out to be pricey smoke and mirrors by the time it hits stores.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.