Gamers get off their butts at E3

After a frenetic couple of days racing from meeting to meeting at the annual E3 Expo trade show and free-for-all in Los Angeles earlier this month, I'm still exhausted. But there was a lot of interesting stuff to see, and thousands of gamers flooded the halls in anticipation of playing the games they may not see in stores for a year or more.

There were some very interesting trends at the show. The most significant trend seems to be the incorporation of movement into gaming. Game companies, aware of the spreading size of their customers' rear ends, seem to be building more games that involve the player standing up and doing something.

I wrote about a few of these so-called fitness gaming accessories last year. This year, there are more games -- and more game controllers -- that demand more than twitchy thumbs to get a high score.

Among the new, physically demanding games are Konami's latest additions to its incredibly popular Dance Dance Revolution series, in which you have to hop or stomp on a dance pad controller in sync with a rolling set of instructions on your TV screen. Konami also makes Karaoke Revolution, which requires you to sing along with a virtual band, and awards you points based on whether you sing on key and in the appropriate places.

The new game, Karaoke Revolution Party (available this later this year for Sony's PlayStation 2), combines the footwork from Dance Dance Revolution with the singing of Karaoke Revolution. No longer will gamers merely be able to zone out in dance mode. Now they'll be forced to concentrate on two activities at once, and it looks like the hardest game I've ever watched someone else fail at.

Fitness controllers abound

But these new games aren't the only things that make you get up and move. More companies are selling "full motion" game controllers that you can use with games you already have. These controllers require you to use your whole body in ways that a game pad never could.

Golf Launchpad

The first versions of these controllers are designed with a single type of game in mind. Electric Spin makes the US$229 Golf Launchpad, which is a USB peripheral designed to work with PC golf games (and it ships with EA's Tiger Woods 2004). The controller is a golf ball tethered to a freely spinning hub. Using your own golf clubs, you swing at the ball to drive or putt your way through the game.

Embedded in the base of the unit are several sensors that measure the angle at which you swing. Combined with the force of the swing measured by the speed of the spinning hub, the Launchpad can accurately represent the distance and direction of travel of the ball, and it sends that information into the game.

Another company, Qmotions, showed off its own golf-swing device, the US$150 Qmotions-Golf. Similar to the Launchpad, the Qmotions-Golf employs a tethered ball that you hit with your own clubs; unlike the more elaborate Launchpad, the Qmotions device does not have sensors embedded below the ball. That lowers the price, but it may not translate to as accurate a representation of the ball's trajectory.

But Qmotions doesn't limit itself to golf games. The company also showed off its Qmotions-Baseball controller, which lets you use your own bat to swing at virtual pitches. The device, which isn't available yet, works with both console and PC baseball games. It includes a sensor sleeve that fits over your bat and a "home plate" receiver that doubles as a controller you'd use to direct your base runners.

Qmotions also plans to market a sensor that you can hook up to an existing stationary bicycle or elliptical trainer, which will allow you to use those pieces of exercise equipment to control PC or console games. I look forward to the day when I can use my elliptical trainer to play Katamari Damacy, but don't expect me to use it to play Halo 2.

One of the more interesting full-motion controllers is the Dream Machine, a prototype being shown by Australian Simulation Control Systems. The device is a lightweight framework that you assemble yourself; it takes up about as much space as a dining-room table. Onto the framework you attach seats or other controllers, which hang suspended from the framework. You control various games by pulling your weight, literally -- by grabbing a metal rod and shifting the seat around.

While the prototype looked a little clunky, the Dream Machine's inventor promised that future models would use carbon-fiber tubing for the framework, which would lighten and strengthen the frame. Who knows, maybe someday we'll all use a Dream Machine-like device hooked up to a PC, instead of a mouse -- or maybe not.

Virtual reality comeback?

Remember when in the early 90s everyone thought that by the year 2000 we'd all be strapped into virtual reality goggles? Well, at least one company wants that to happen in 2005. EMagin showed off its Z800 3D Gaming Visor, which uses a lightweight, high-resolution Organic LED display built into a headset to create immersive 3D environments for console games. The Visor includes a head tracking element, so as you turn your head, your view through the eyes of the character within the game also rotates, or pitches up or down.

It was disconcerting at first to use the headset while seated. I could see the Visor being most useful when you stand up in front of your gaming device, so you have some freedom of movement. The device delivers 1024 by 768 resolution and a flicker-free display -- but the high cost (US$900) might put all but the most dedicated gamers off.

I also saw the new Gizmondo handheld gaming system, which had its own form of virtual reality system built into it. The device has a built in Global Positioning System receiver and a 640-by-480 resolution digital camera; it uses both to enhance several games. One of the uses of the camera in games is to create a sort of enhanced reality, where the gamer points the camera at objects in their environment in order to get help or progress through the game -- a sort of virtual scavenger hunt.

One maze game lets you control the direction you travel by reading the motion as you spin your body left or right while holding the camera in front of you. In another game demo, the player must point the Gizmondo's camera at a symbol in order to make a Genie appear, who can provide assistance during the game. While the player keeps the symbol on the screen, the Genie swoops into view and appears to stand on the symbol; As soon as you aim the device away from the symbol, the Genie flies off.

Old movies make new games shine

In what must be the most bizarre trend in gaming, Hollywood has begun to dig through its vaults and has licensed classic films for use in games.

At the show I saw demos of two classic movies that will be in the game sections of stores either late this year or sometime next year: Scarface and Taxi Driver are coming soon to a console and/or PC near you. Both movie-themed games build upon the original film storyline by following the characters after the credits roll. Taxi Driver's main character searches for his girlfriend's killer, while Scarface returns to a life of drug dealing on the streets of Miami after he loses his empire.

But the film-themed game that really had my heart racing was Peter Jackson's reinterpretation of the classic King Kong, which should launch around the time the movie is released. The game seems like Jurassic Park meets Monster Island, with you beginning the game at the bottom of the food chain playing as a man and ending the game playing as the great big ape himself. While no screen shots were released, I can say the game literally took my breath away as I watched a scene where the player has to run for his life from dinosaurs, a giant millipede, and Kong.

The one movie-game that had me scratching my head was The Godfather. I can see how it could translate into a capable first-person or third-person shooter, but I wondered what the key combination would be that allowed you to place the head of a dead horse into the bed of your enemy, and whether that would have the same impact on the small screen. I guess we'll have to wait until next year to find out.

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Andrew Brandt

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