It’s screens all the way down

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.

7 thoughts on “It’s screens all the way down

  1. Terry

    As a lifelong gamer who is completely familiar with the landscape of the industry, I understand your concerns, but I think you’re overestimating the power of Nintendo by a long shot. There will be no explosion — Nintendo will be lucky if they don’t go bankrupt. There was a time when they dictated market trends, but they’re very much seen as a quirky Japanese toy maker, an anomaly with hit-or-miss functionality (motion controllers, 3D displays, and glasses-free 3D displays) not something to seriously imitate.

    Microsoft, however, is certainly pushing to do something similar, and you’re right about the trend. I just wouldn’t give credit to Nintendo.

  2. Arjun Verma

    @Terry-When one talks of Nintendo(or Microsoft),she/he doesn’t just talk about the company but also about the industry.It’s necessary to look at the context and the larger picture just as one should not forget the forest while looking at the trees.

    Carr isn’t quite overestimating the power of Nintendo,but is trying to underscore the consequences and ramifications of the technology Nintendo has come up with(“we seem to be crossing some new Rubicon of Virtuality”).

    Besides,Carr’s analysis of the issue quite poignantly highlights the fact that today invention may have become the mother of necessity.

  3. Chris Nahr

    I agree with Terry. People tend to greatly overestimate Nintendo’s genius because they struck gold a couple of times, but they forget that Nintendo also had several big failures. All I’m seeing points toward the Wii-U being another failure, specifically because two distinct screens at greatly different distances and angles from the eye are such a terrible way to control games (or anything really). TV remote controls aren’t comparable because you don’t try to constantly look at the remote while watching TV.

    The Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect were successful because they introduced simple large-scale body movement which appealed to people who don’t normally play video games. But those same people are going to be repelled by the complexity overload of following two screens. I predict the Wii-U will fail utterly, and any form of multi-screen control for games will remain limited to geeky niches.

  4. Nick Post author

    Has Kinect really been successful as a game controller? I hear otherwise. As to the dual-screen interface, whether from Nintendo or, eventually, from other companies, I agree that it will provide an interesting and important ergonomic test of “complexity overload.” I sense that people, for better or worse, will be able to adapt more easily than you think. For console action games in particular, it could even spark a bit of a renaissance, as it may actually take some complexity out of the interface. Mastering all the functions of today’s single-screen controllers often entails a pretty serious learning curve.

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