Friday, May 09, 2008

iGame - Apple's hand held console, Part I


Essentially, this article is the fruit of a progressive extension of an initial thought, which burgeoned as I wondered what would happen if Apple broke into the handheld market, headbutt style.
This whole fantasy of mine is composed of three pieces, and today, I publish the first part.

It starts with a flashback…

Things really got hot back in back in 2005, when Apple presented the infamous gPod.
It may have been quite a great day, notably for Apple fans I suppose, if only it had not also been the 1st of April.
Sure, it probably was worth many laughs for some, but I keep thinking that there was more to this than a mere leg-pull. Or maybe I was reading too much into that, and got abused because of the budget thrown at such a prank.

Still. Besides a sympathetic toy, couldn’t it be possible that Apple’s funny bait also served as generating some reaction, to be analysed thereafter, more seriously?
You know, probing your audience while looking like you don’t care.

As far as things went, while Apple officially limited themselves to consider the made up device as nothing more than some facetious drollery, I’d wager that Nintendo’s execs declared it a good source of inspiration for the second version of their successful handheld, the DS Lite, which hit the Japanese stores the following year, during March. It’s not like the console’s ceramic white design doesn’t owe a lot to Apple anyway, right?
Could have Nintendo got a sweat?

It’s worth wondering, based on former designs and actual industrial power, if Apple could enter the handheld market with a console of their own.
So, I came with this extremely speculative talk, trying to imagine what could Apple design if they decided to thrown their own baby into the portable console war (yes, it has definitely turned into a conflict, as the PSP is gaining significant momentum against Nintendo’s products).
Truth said, I giggled at the exciting thought of seeing Apple step into the ring.
Apple vs. Mushroom!

A Perfect Circle

I don’t know about you, but there’s an element of gaming that matters a lot to me, just as much as the games I buy, incidentally. This element is the controller.

As far as I’m concerned, the success of a controller depends on several key factors, most of them falling into the ergonomics ensemble (since they all get the input and output right anyway).
I love to gauge the intelligence behind the design, to see which parts have been really properly conceptualized, assembled and tested.
Those who value the importance of ergonomics and interaction do properly weigh such details.
Some controllers get lost in a pool of mediocre devices which fail miserably. Others range from honest to very good, generally to be enjoyed by large numbers.
Finally, a few near perfect ones are recognized as the blessed fruits of authentic genius.

One of such truly ecstatic features has been created by Apple; it’s known as the Click Wheel, and is found on the classic and nano iPods models (preceding the touch version).
If you have issues to identify the models, check out this list.

The controller version since late 2006 is pure and complete: Apple has reinvented the wheel.

Sorry, I’m not an Apple fan to any extent, but I think this piece of design deserves some recognition. It’s just… cool. From a handheld perspective, it rivals the awesomeness level of a touch screen.
This system, reminiscent of a touch pad, but much simplified for good, has the potential to be a great gaming tool, if fully exploited.
At the moment, the intricate, minimalist looking, smooth and almost sexy all-in-one system is, above all, an extremely efficient and seamless combination of three controllers:

- A four directions D-pad.
- The ring; stacked upon the D-pad, is a 16 segments touch-sensitive membrane grown out of an organic looking circuitry.
- A central button; a slightly bowl shaped depression, used as the action key, and a great spot for your thumb to rest while idling.

I’m tempted to say that making circles with said thumb could have never been so graciously easy.

Sure, a thumbstick can also be used to make circles as well, and their analog resolution would generally offer a more refined input, but no matter how a nice gaming tool a stick is, it’s also far from being perfect, not suited for all situations.
There are times when you actually don’t need anything but simple systems.
Eventually, Apple could put in place two or three concentric rings, and refine the sensory system as well by subdivision of sectors.

Besides, all thumb sticks have a native mechanical force feedback. It can get annoying after a while, as you often need to replace your thumb at the apex of the stick, especially when the chosen material lacks grip, as it does on the PSP (and on any Dualshock sticks as well as a matter of fact).

It’s not without saying that with a bit of smart tweaking, a thumbstick may find its place in the middle of the wheel, to replace the action button… assuming it could be made easy to nudge without too much resistance, easy to press (to keep the action button) but still offering enough vertical resistance to support your thumb as a neutral spot, not sticking out, slick and perfectly fitting the thumb.
I mean espousing the shape of the finger. Hey, here’s another tip for Sony:

Concave (stick) + convex (thumb) = good.
Convex (stick) + convex (thumb) = stupid.

Grooves are nice (especially when applied to triggers).

As it stands, the wheel would probably pave the way for some intense Shoryuken galore.

The D-pad could be enhanced, and given four extra contacts for the diagonals.
It goes without saying that if the digital buttons could be allowed pressure sensitivity, it would be a good addition.
Then, add the final four or six buttons on the right, two frontal triggers (again enabling with various degrees of pressure), and we’re likely looking at a potentially truly amazing piece of gaming technology which could grace our hands in a near future.
Assuming they’d get the thing’s whole shape right, of course.

Part I | Read Part II | Read Part III

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