Nintendo packed wireless gear into Wii U for streaming video, future fun

Nintendo and Broadcom built in enhanced Wi-Fi, plus Bluetooth and NFC

The console and the handheld GamePad in Nintendo's hot-selling Wii U form a special bond, thanks to proprietary smarts that Nintendo and Broadcom developed to drive high Wi-Fi performance.

The Wii U leaps beyond earlier Nintendo systems with its GamePad, which can control Wii games displayed on a TV or act as a standalone gaming device with its own display. With the big advance in controller capabilities, Nintendo also bumped up the wireless on the system, using Wi-Fi between the controller and console for the first time, in place of Bluetooth. Bluetooth remains so earlier Wii controllers still work with the new platform, and NFC (near-field computing) is built in for future capabilities that could include bringing playing cards and character figurines into gameplay.

Nintendo's new platform hit the U.S. market on Sunday and promptly sold out, though problems with an immediate software upgrade and the company's Miiverse social-networking platform made some buyers grumble. Much is riding on the Wii U, Nintendo's first new console since the original Wii came out in 2006.

On Monday, Nintendo and Broadcom revealed a few new details about the wireless technology that makes the Wii U run.

At the heart of the system is IEEE 802.11n Wi-Fi, which the companies have enhanced with a set of features to ensure smooth streaming of high-definition video. Video can be streamed directly between the GamePad and the Wii console, without the need for an access point, using the Wi-Fi Direct standard. But Nintendo and Broadcom have built additional features on top of Wi-Fi Direct.

To start with, the console has two separate Wi-Fi chips: one for communicating with the local Wi-Fi router and the other exclusively for communication with the GamePad.

The console-to-GamePad link operates exclusively over the 5GHz band, the set of Wi-Fi frequencies with the most channels and the least interference. To talk to the home router, the console can use either 5GHz or the other band, 2.4GHz. If necessary to prevent interference, the console-to-router connection can be forced onto the 2.4GHz band, said Dino Bekis, senior director of Broadcom's Wireless Connectivity Combo unit.

The partners have also developed other features for better streaming video, Bekis said. Typical rate-control algorithms for maximizing Wi-Fi speed tend to shoot for the highest possible throughput at any given time, but Broadcom and Nintendo developed customized algorithms that instead are designed more for constant bandwidth, which streaming video requires. The two devices can also adaptively determine when to buffer or retransmit the video stream based on current streaming performance.

The Wii U console will also include a Broadcom Bluetooth 4.0 chip, allowing players to use older Wii controllers and other peripherals, such as headphones.

NFC, the newest of the wireless systems in the Wii U, is largely a question mark but may offer the most original uses. It's designed for communication between two devices tapped together and mostly has been used for payments by phone. Nintendo hasn't spelled out exactly how the Wii U may use NFC, but the company has suggested users will be able to tap the GamePad against playing cards or figurines.

What makes NFC well-suited to that application is its low power requirement, Bekis said. One element in the link, such as a card or figurine, could use NFC without any power, so it could be made without a battery, he said. NFC might also be used for payments on the Wii, such as for purchases on Nintendo's planned video-on-demand service. Because there's an NFC chip in the GamePad, users might be able to tap an NFC-equipped credit card or phone to that device instead of entering payment details, Bekis said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Tags consumer electronicsGame platformsbroadcomNetworkinggameswirelesswiiWLANs / Wi-FiNintendo

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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