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Console evolution flirts with virtual reality

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, February 7, 2007

From the beginning, virtual reality has always been seen as the final frontier for video games. The desire to make players really feel like their onscreen actions are controlled not just by pushing a button, but by actually performing the motion involved has been omnipresent throughout the history of video games. And as video games have evolved, they have come closer and closer to reaching that level of sophistication.

When the original Nintendo system (NES) first came out, it came with games and accessories that had already begun to simulate real-life actions.

“Duck Hunt” involved the use of a light gun which players pointed at the screen in order to take down the ducks. It has been so popular and beloved as a game that a new version will be released on Nintendo’s lattest system, the Wii. Players could also run in “World Class Track Meet” by using Nintendo’s Power Pad. Even back in 1989, the initial plans for the current-era Wii-mote could be seen in Nintendo’s Power Glove, which had limited capabilities of sensing hand movements.

The ideas behind the original Nintendo accessories carried through into the following generation of interactive gaming accessories which accompanied new consoles. Sega’s popular “House of the Dead” franchise emerged in the mid-90s in both arcades and home consoles (Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast), which used a light gun evolved from Nintendo’s original model. The Dreamcast gun receives light through a photodiode located within the barrel to detect light reflecting off of the screen and translates the player’s shooting to carnage onscreen.

Nintendo’s Power Pad found itself reincarnated through the “Dance Dance Revolution” (DDR) craze of the late-90s. By following arrows moving on the screen, players stepped on the corresponding directional arrow spaces on a pressure-sensitive foot pad. The popularity of “Dance Dance Revolution” spawned a number of music-related titles, each with their own interactive accessories.

“Karaoke Revolution” is based on karaoke singing, where the players sing into a microphone and the game detects the pitch of the singer’s voice and awards points based on how close the singer is to the actual pitch of the song being sung. There are currently several versions of the game on the market, including “Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol,” in which the player must suffer through the criticisms of Idol judges Simon, Paula and Randy at the end of each performance. The critiques of their virtual renditions even affect the player’s final score.

Recently popular are the “Guitar Hero” games for the Playstation 2. Much like “DDR,” the players follow the notes as they appear on the screen and “play” their guitar by simultaneously pressing the corresponding notes and strumming the main key in rhythm. The game features popular songs by such artists as Cheap Trick, KISS, Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine.

On a similar note, would-be virtual drummers can enjoy playing with the Donkey Kong Bongos while playing the “Donkey Konga” titles on Nintendo’s Game Cube or through the “Taiko: Drum Master” system on the PS2. With both systems, players use an electric bongo drumset and its accompanying drum beats to play a song, or, in “Donkey Konga,” to control the characters on the screen.

In 2003, the Playstation 2 released the EyeToy, which is a device similar to a webcam. The EyeToy allows players to interact with the game through motion, color and sound detection. There were several games developed for the PS2 which implemented the EyeToy, in addition to games such as the “Harry Potter” series which included several mini-games which utilized the Eye Toy’s capabilities.

The relatively new handheld Nintendo DS brings interactivity directly to the palm of the player’s hand. The DS is capable of detecting sound and light, as well as making use of a touch screen which allows more interaction between the game and the player, even with old-school games such as “Mario” or “MarioKart.”

With each new generation of consoles, the level of player interactivity continues to evolve. And although none of the current game systems have yet advanced to the point of true “virtual reality,” it is now possible for players to shoot virtual guns, sing virtual karaoke and play virtual guitars and drums, all from the comfort of their sofas at home.