With the launch this weekend of Nintendo’s dual-screen Wii U, we seem to be crossing some new Rubicon of Virtuality. It’s not that the ability to control or augment one screen with another screen is new — you’ve been able to use a smartphone to control a TV for years — but the Wii U promises to take the two-screen lifestyle to a whole new level. We’re going to see, pretty much immediately, an explosion of innovation in the creation of experiences involving the simultaneous use of two screens. The explosion will begin in the world of videogames, but then it will spread outward, like a mushroom cloud, to many other realms.
In gaming, the incorporation of a little touchscreen monitor into a controller promises some big benefits — notably, in helping remedy the kludginess that has long characterized multiplayer action games on consoles — but it also marks, as game critic Chris Suellentrop points out, a capitulation to the tyranny of the screen. With the Wii U, Nintendo retreats from the original Wii interface, which was designed to bring a whole-body physicality to videogaming, in order to accommodate ”the new mode of living that Apple’s iPhone and iPad have introduced.” We won’t be happy, it seems, until the screen wields total control over our eyes, our fingers, our minds — until its suzerainty extends to all the precincts of the cortex.
The computer screen has always been a powerful tool for dividing attention. It wraps us in a funhouse of sensory stimuli, indulges our primal instinct to shift our focus rapidly in response to changes in our environment. The dual-screen interface magnifies the effect; it divides the divisions, slices our fragmented consciousness into micro-strips. It’s the perfect interface for the natural-born scatterbrain.
You might think that the double-screen interface is, physiologically, about as far as we humans can go. We only have two hands, after all — not to mention a single field of vision. But I’m not so sure we’ve reached our limit just yet. Imagine playing a Wii U game while also wearing a Google Glass. A three-screen interface! It’s entirely doable. At that point, we’ll have pretty much augmented the reality out of reality. We’ll have rocketed our way into the astral plane.