The PlayStation Move thrives in darkness, could enable a new kind of Greek god game, has 10 hours of battery life, a mystery port and a simple innovation that could be profound.
Kotaku learned all this and more earlier this week when I sat down with Sony senior researcher Richard Marks, the man who had already wowed me with the newest Minority-Report-style demonstration of the PlayStation 3's forthcoming PlayStation Move wand controller.
I'd seen the Move in mid-March at the Game Developers Conference, and played the first games shown for it. I'd swung the Move — sphere at the end of the wand illuminated — in front of a PlayStation Eye camera, as required. I'd used a Wii Nunchuk-style PlayStation Subcontroller in my other hand. In the weeks since I had first used the Move I thought of many questions, most of them technical, that I knew Marks would be able to answer.
For half an hour, Marks walked through several topics with me, explaining the possibilities and limits of Sony's latest controller tech.
One of Sony's most aggressively expressed talking points about the Move is that it detects movement in the Z-plane — the plane that defines a player's distance from the vertical slice of air defined by the front of his or her TV better than any other motion controller, including the Wii Remote. The Remote, when pointed at a TV and moved forward and back, can be used to determine its range in the Z-plane, but Marks emphasized the Move's ability to be detected in the Z-plane at all times and with 60-frames-per-second precision based on the Eye's detection of the position and relative size of the Move's sphere.
"When you want the absolute best tracking, you have to have the absolute best position tracking, which is the camera for us," he said. If the sphere is ever obstructed, like when a player might through their hand back while holding a Move, the controller's motion sensors kick in to approximate the position of the Move, a technique that is similar to what can be accomplished with the Wii Remote's add-on, the MotionPlus.
But what's the big deal with detecting movement in the Z-plane, with detecting more than just movement of a wand controller up and down (Y-plane) or side to side (X-plane)?
The answer was partially provided in Marks' latest Minority-Report-style Move demo, which he would refer to throughout our conversation.
"You can punch in Z," Marks said. "The Wii does that and we do it too. But what we were just doing while I was moving the camera around and flying, the only way to do that is Z."
And what of games? "If you want to place something in the 3D world; if you want to reach into the 3D world and manipulate... maybe I can grab things. (Fellow Move researcher) Anton Mikhailov wants to make a game where there's things like eggs that you have to pick up softly and other things you have to pick up with ammo triggered to them. I want to make a game where I'm a Greek god and I have to smash these little evil guys and the good guys I have to pick up carefully and safely.
"Reaching into the world like that, there's no way to do that if it's (only) 2D."
Kotaku has recently covered news about how much space the new motion-control gaming systems will require. Not everyone has enough room, though what I'd head of the Move had sounded a little confining. I asked Marks to explain how much room a Move player can actually use. Can you be far from your TV? "The spec on it is three to 10 feet is where it will track," Marks said. "The kind of sweet spot everyone uses for the games is five to 10 feet." Marks said that he initially wanted the Move to work from as far away as 15 feet. "But then I tried it out and I [felt] 'I am so far away from a TV now, I can't imagine playing a game this way.' You could maybe if you're really rich and have a super-huge TV. In that case I might move the camera forward." The camera shoots out at angles. At a 10-foot distance it can capture player movement 12-feet across. Marks said the camera's field of view is 75 degrees.
Sony officials have already told Kotaku not to worry too much about how light will affect the PlayStation Move, but it is hard to stifle skepticism on this topic. Video games designed for the PlayStation 2's EyeToy and PlayStation 3's PlayStation Eye camera have worked superbly in Sony-prepared lighting conditions and not nearly as well in lighting conditions prepared in my house. But the first good sign that the PlayStation Eye can withstand lighting challenges better when it is sensing the Move occurred Tuesday when I accidentally (honest!) backed into a light switch during a Move demo. Marks had been waving his hands through a Minority Report-style demo that I would later have him re-do so we could share it with all of you.
The demo we were doing was in an eighth floor suite of a hotel room in downtown New York City. The lights at their middle setting. Standing in front of a TV with Marks wielding the Move, we had a window to the left of us, curtains pulled back to reveal a gray, overcast sky outside. My backing into the switch brought the lights down, and then my fiddling with the three-button light switch as I apologized brought the lights to full brightness. Finally, I got the lights back to the medium setting. As far as I could tell, the Move did not need to be re-calibrated during any of that.
Marks showed me how lighting calibration works with the device. He started a fresh demo and pointed the sphere of his controller at the PlayStation Eye camera. The sphere quickly blinked red, blue and green. That calibrated brightness of the LED in the Move controller, which he said could slightly vary due to manufacturing differences. Right after those blinks the Eye "imaged" the sphere with the Move's light turned off, in order to detect the level of light in the room and white-balance the room. That process lasted a couple of seconds, at most, and resulted in a calibrated Move sphere with a sphere glowing a color the Eye could track in the room we were in. "If you flip the lights off, it may or may not cause an issue," Marks said. "In this particular case it's still a good match." But if you needed to re-calibrate, Marks said you could do that with a press of a button, which is likely to be offered in any Move game's pause menu.
I pointed to the clouds outside and wondered what would happen if the gray clouds outside broke and the day brightened with sunshine. "For a typical little bit of clouds going past the sun and stuff, you wouldn't ever need to re-calibrate that," Marks said. "In a case where it's really strong sunlight versus not-sunlight, you probably would have to re-calibrate that. We haven't really had to do that ever." Direct bright sun on the Move would cause a problem, but Marks noted that people don't usually play games with the sun beaming onto their TV. On the other hand, players who play in the dark would see the Move function well. "Dark is perfect," he said. "Dark is great."
The Move wand is made to last 10 hours with the the sphere's light turned brightly and the motion sensors engaged. He said that's shorter than a DualShock 3 controller. The subcontroller charge, he said, will last much longer.
The accelerometers in the Move, which measures direction of force, or the tilt position of the controller, have a bigger range than those in the DualShock 3 controllers, Marks said. He believes they also exceed those in the Wii Remote by a significant amount, but could not provide a measure of comparison. The gyroscopes, which detect rotation velocity, can detect 2,500 degrees per second. "That's very fast," he said. "You could spin it all the way around eight times in one second. You can't do that, but in a short time you could get a burst [of that speed.]" All of that movement data needs to be read by the PlayStation 3 with a high degree of finesse, Marks said, otherwise it is wasted. The system reads it by converting analog movement information into digital data. He said a lot of current motion-control systems use an 8-bit level of detection which results in the system being able to read 256 total values of movement data. "Ours is higher than that," he said, "Much better. Powers of two."
All of this data is read quickly by the PS3 and the PlayStation Eye camera, which captures at 60 frames per second. He said 30 frames per second would be too slow, but that 60 would capture most human action, probably anything short of Jet Li's most advanced techniques. That ensures that the camera, which tracks the position of the Move, will be able to keep up with most anything a player does. The tilting and twisting data being transmitted to the PS3 by the Move's sensors, is being captured "much higher than 60," he said. It can capture the snap of the wrist.
# OF CONTROLLERS
The PS3 can theoretically support up to seven wireless controllers. Could it do seven Moves? "What we've announced so far at this point is that you can have four PlayStation Moves, split that up any way you want to," Marks said. "You can have two Moves and two Subcontrollers. It's really more of product planning choice than it is a technical choice."
Anyone who uses a PlayStation Move is going to have to add a PlayStation Eye to their TV set-up. That little camera will need to be mounted somewhere near the set, pointed at the player. "It works best to be in the center of the television either above or below," Marks said. "It also works best if it's closer to mid-torso height instead of looking way up at you or looking way down at you. It does work, but it just doesn't feel quite the same."
Marks told me that his favorite low-tech way to position the camera is to just dangle it slightly in front of the TV, letting the base of the camera hook against the top of the front of his set, the camera's cord pulling from the rear as a counterweight. He demonstrated this for me, and, surprisingly, it worked.
PERIPHERALS AND THE MYSTERY PORT
Some companies are making money selling tennis-racket-shaped shells for Wii Remotes. They make gun peripherals and gold club molds and all sorts of other things. I asked Marks if the Move could support that type of thing.
"I think there's a lot of options with having this thing being part of another peripheral, with something bigger that you would hold" Marks said, with Move in hand. "We've had a lot of talks with our licensees about what would make sense for this... We do have this USB cord [at the base of the wand] which is how you charge it. We also have this external port which is proprietary. Our licensees can talk to us about it." I asked what Sony uses it for. "We don't use it right now for anything, but it has data and power, I guess I can say that much."
THE SURPRISE SQUEEZE
As I typically do, I concluded my interview with Marks by asking if there was anything key he thought we didn't cover. It turns out the Move has an unheralded feature that he believes could be a big deal: the analog trigger on its underbelly. As opposed to the Wii's similarly-positioned digital trigger, the Move's "t-button" is sensitive to the same gradual pull as the analog triggers on the shoulders of traditional modern game controllers. "I still think that people underestimate the importance of this kind of controller where you're doing something and you squeeze," Marks said.
He had shown me a paintbrush demo during which he wielded the Move wand as if it was a virtual paint brush while modulating the thickness of that brush based on how tightly he squeezed the trigger. He had shown me a puppeteering demo in which the puppet's hands were synced to the Move wands he held in each hand and the clenching of the puppet's fists was gradually performed by the squeeze of that deep trigger. "It's a long throw," he said of the trigger's range of motion. "It gives you this extra degree of freedom that's not motion control. It's almost like an analog stick in one direction. I think that's been missing from one-handed controls. I don't think people knew it was missing... It's such a small thing technologically, but that we think the stuff we're doing, it isn't a small thing."
It is hard not to be impressed in a demonstration setting, doubly so when the inventors are nearby and capable of describing the scientific and technological achievements of what they have made. The Move ultimately is a device that will earn its allure based on the quality of the games it is used to control. But a conversation with Richard Marks convinces the Sony's motion controller, once easily dismissed as the least interesting of the big three console makers' has a great range of potential and enough pluses that it could be as much an instrument for great game-making as any of them. It's release in the fall will help show if Sony game-makers can match the success that Sony's tech-makers clearly already have.