(Wired News) A young man crouches, staring intently into a small camera about 10 feet in front of him, hands balled into fists hovering at chest level. Overhead, his image flickers on a television screen as cartoon characters leap from a series of footbridges. He swings his hands in a circular motion, waxing on and waxing off, sending the animated avatars flying.
The sight of a man knocking digital characters askew stopped more than a few people at San Diego’s Comic-Con last week. The blend of real and computer images smashed together on a game screen was too much for most to pass up. The furor was fueled by a new game peripheral from Sony called the EyeToy, a Universal Serial Bus camera with motion-tracking technology that places gamers’ images on the screen and allows players to control action with their body movements in one of 12 custom PlayStation 2 games.
“We wanted to broaden the audience base that we have with the PlayStation 2, expanding beyond the people who were turned off by joysticks,” said Richard Marks, Sony Computer Entertainment America research and development manager. “We weren’t trying to create a better interface for Quake. We wanted something like Minority Report, where people could flip through information using their hands.”
The EyeToy, which won’t hit American stores until October, is part of a new push to build game peripherals that operate differently than the joysticks and game pads of the past. The reason: Publishers fear that casual gamers may be scared off by the ever-increasing complexity of controllers.
Companies are looking for ways to attract players intimidated by the multibutton, multidirectional pad devices, according to IDC analyst Schelley Olhava. It’s an uphill battle because the most loyal gamers are accustomed to the boomerang-shaped controllers. Tinkering with that format could upset the core customer base.
“The market for the traditional peripherals continues to hum along,” Olhava said. “There are occasionally changes that bring incremental sales, but there hasn’t been a revolutionary change in some time that has galvanized the industry.”
Despite the dearth of innovation, the peripheral market brought in $1.2 billion in 2002, according to the NPD Group.
Instead of creating one controller for everyone, companies now are looking to create customized devices that cater to varying experience levels. Microsoft, for instance, soon will release its Music Mixer software, which transforms the powerful Xbox game console into a karaoke machine. Players can create their own sing-along mixes by using the software to strip out vocal tracks from their favorite CDs, and then belt out those songs using a microphone that comes with the software.
But the customized game controller market isn’t limited to casual players.
The Cymouse, for instance, is headgear akin to a miner’s light. Developed by Maui Innovative Peripherals, the device sends light impulses to a sensor tower that is attached to the PC, letting the player’s head movements direct on-screen action. It doesn’t replace the keyboard and mouse; instead, it gives players another way to control characters.
“In every study that we’ve done, we’ve found that a keyboard and a mouse are the preferred input devices (for computer games), so we didn’t want to try to replace that,” said product engineer David Andrade. “But we did want to add something to games, and with the Cymouse, we’ve essentially given gamers a third hand.”
Headgear, though, may be a bit much even for the hard-core gamer. For the rest of the playing population, Essential Reality created a wearable device called the P5 Glove, which allows players to control first-person shooters with a series of hand twitches and waves.
The glove works with a handful of PC titles; however, the company released its developer tools for the PlayStation 2. Now, Eidos Interactive, Atari and Electronic Arts are integrating the control system directly into new games.
“The changes in the (P5 Glove) are based on the types of games being made,” said David Devor, Essential Reality’s vice president of marketing. “Imagine being able to make a gesture when you’re the catcher in a game, say putting down two fingers, and the pitcher knows what to do from there.”
That type of control, though, is still quite a ways off. Despite the focus on new controllers, early adopters anxious to try out the latest in game play are merely beginning to get the kinks worked out of many of the devices. Ultimately, the best of these peripherals will be integrated into the next generation of consoles and PCs, creating new interfaces for the player.
Marks said large game publishers already have started working with the EyeToy.
“The big publishers have been investigating this,” Marks said. “With the PlayStation 2, the EyeToy was very flexible. With the next-generation console system, now we really know what we can do with this.”