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And Away Wii Go

Playing in Our Space Part II: A Look at Nintendos Newest Game System

Editors Note: In January, Michael Heiss described how to incorporate the new generation of video game consoles into high-end custom AV systems. He focused only on Sonys Playstation3, but space at that time did not permit him to delve into Nintendos Wii, or to go into any discussion of the game play differences between the systems. This month, through a focus on Wii and an update on Xbox 360, hopefully the questions left untouched in Part I will be brought to the fore.

Before getting into the comparisons, the ins and outs of how Wii works, it is important to devote some space to the key factors that you need to know about when your clients ask that you include a Wii in a new or retrofit system. In some ways Wii parallels the other two systems, in other ways it is considerably different. Ill provide a number of the key hints here, but this is one seemingly simple box where bypassing the manual can lead to some embarrassment, not to mention call-backs.

In the face of all the attention surrounding Playstation3, Wii has taken advantage of unique games and game play, along with a list price of $249 to fly in under the radar to capture considerably more market share than pundits might have predicted in the face of Xbox 360s one-year-plus lead time and Sonys massive publicity for PS3. Nintendo makes no apologies for its strategy of reaching out to hard-core gamers, but in many ways Wii is such a breakout product for entertainment value that it is almost worth suggesting for inclusion in a system even when it isnt brought up in your pre-bid interviews.

On the surface, Wii seems to be an also ran, lacking the HD graphics capabilities and hard drives of its two competitors. Yes, it does have an optical disc drive, but for the time being it plays only Wii and GameCube discs. The game worlds rumor mill has it that standard definition (red laser based SD) DVD playback is possible and may be added, but forget about either HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc with this baby. In fact, dont even look for a digital audio connection, as there isnt one.

What makes Wii work in the market is the legacy of strong first and third-party games, with key franchise, character-driven titles featuring Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and others here or on the way. As important, what Wiis hardware lacks in some ways, it makes up for in others with a remote system that makes it possible to provide games that offer physical action and immersive play that the other systems simply do not match. With that, however, come both the challenges and opportunities for the custom installer when a Wii will sit in the big theater room along with a PS3, Xbox 360, off-air/cable/satellite delivered HD content provisions and the rest of the litany of new generation and legacy home theater sources.

Placement and Connections
Starting things off, as is the case with the other two console systems, Wii can be placed either vertically or horizontally, though it is most frequently seen in the vertical stance using the tilt-up base supplied with the unit. Here is our first word of caution: be careful about side clearance when the unit is placed horizontally, as that will place the SD card slots and plugs for legacy controllers on the left side of the Wii. If the Wii is not on a slide-out shelf, be sure to allow for sufficient clearance to let the cards and controllers be used. The cooling air outlet is at the rear of the unit, but the air intake will be on the right side (hidden underneath in a vertical orientation), so allow for that, as well.

As noted, resolution is limited to 480p, and that is certainly the mode to be used. This calls for an optional component Y/Pr/Pb cable, as there is no HDMI or DVI connection. Similarly, make certain that you plan for an old fashioned left/right analog audio connection, as that is what you will be using. As is the case with Xbox 360, but not with PS3, the power supply is an external brick. That allows the unit, itself, to be slim and small, but it means that you need to accommodate the power supply in a fashion so that it doesnt drop behind a rack or become unplugged.

Network connectivity for Wii is based on an internal 802.11 b/g system, so that no additional installation is required on that score if the unit is placed where an existing system has coverage. If the Wiis location is out of wireless range, or if a wired link is more desirable due to client requests, an optional adaptor will connect the Wii to any standard ethernet connection. In addition to an existing hard-wired network this might be a power line system, with many brands such as D-Link joining that category at CES. The ethernet connection will also allow for the use of 802.11n bridge units when they inevitably become available within the next year.

Out of Your Seat Extras
Once youve thought about placement and connection for the Wii console, its time to go back to the drawing board and take a look at the room lighting and seating/placement. One of the most captivating features of Wii is the way in which the revolutionary two-piece controller system is used with sports games that are different from anything youve seen before. These are not passive sit in your seat, couch-potato games.

Thanks to a six-axis motion sensor built into the Bluetooth-connected remote and its companion Nunchuck, along with distance sensing facilitated by an IR Sensor Bar, titles such as the Wii Sports game packed with each console really get you into the action. You swing a tennis racket, baseball bat or golf club, pitch a slider or curve, glide a bowling ball down the lane or even punch an opponent or bob and weave in the boxing game. The remotes make this all possible, but here is where your knowledge and talents become as key to everything working as those of the Nintendo designers.

Even better, the recently released Wii Play game not only gives you additional opportunities to use the motion-sensing and distance calculation capabilities of Wii in fishing, billiards, shooting range, table tennis and hockey-style games, among others, it also includes a Wii remote. A spare remote lists for $39.99, the Wii Play game is $49.99. You do the math.

First, as mentioned, these are physical standup games that require quite a bit of playing room. If, as I suspect will be the case, Wii Sports and similarly programmed games become family favorites, youll need to arrange the seating areas so that there is a performance area where the contestants can do battle against one another or the game console. As mentioned with regard to PS3 in Januarys RS, here is where you can take advantage of lighting presets and special spotlights to make it both theatrical and exciting, while at the same time safe.

Installation Challenges
A key part of the Wii hardware that makes this all happen presents a new set of wrinkles to game console integration that are unlike those youve ever faced before. At first glance, old hands at the custom installation game will look at the Sensor Bar that comes with the console, note its name and the fact that it plugs into the rear of the unit and presume that it is some sort of IR receiver. In fact, it is just the opposite: the Sensor Bar does not sense anything. Rather, it contains IR emitters whose output is sensed by a CCD within the main controller to gauge your distance from the console that is used along with the six-way motion sensing to power the action.

In a standard installation, you simply follow the installation rules in the System Setup manual, placing the bar in its stand so that it is not atop a display or below it, but on the same shelf. To avoid causing cut-off that could interfere with proper sensing, you are advised to place the sensor bar at the very front edge of a shelf; simply affixing it to a flat panel display that is recessed into a cabinet wont do. Similarly, dont try to hide the bar by placing it underneath a shelf.

More critically, you will quickly begin to ask how to integrate the sensor bar into installations where the display is mounted high up on a wall, or flushed flat into a wall such that the sensor bar would be judged an intrusion into the rooms design. Going further, how do you deal with installations where the player monitors face into the room, with viewers in the theater seats watching the action on a large screen while the contestants face into their own displays? Even when there are no special monitors for the players, how do you deal with the need to have the IR bar when a front projector is used with a drop-down screen? At first glance, any of these possibilities would seem to lead to a no go.

Fortunately, it is not as bad as it looks, and to some extent this provides a way for you to deliver considerable added value to a client by supplying a solution that they, or your less-informed competition, would be hard pressed to come up with.

Thanks to both a loyal fan base of Nintendo gamers and the tear-down specialists who provide competitive analysis of products by taking them apart to see whats inside a product and estimate its cost, it quickly became known that the only components in the bar are IR LEDs at the left and right sides, approximately 7.5 inches apart. Dont be misled by the cable connection to the consoles rear panel. Because there is no sensor in the sensor bar, it does not communicate with the console, as mentioned the remote does that via Bluetooth. All the cable does is provide power to light the LEDs, nothing more.

With that in mind you should begin to see a number of opportunities. For simple installations the third-party accessories market is already providing solutions, such as the $19.95 Wireless Sensor Bar from Nyko. The wireless here does not refer to the use of any RF technology, since again, that isnt needed. Instead, it just means that four AAA cells are used for power rather than the connection to the console unit. As an added bonus, the Nyko unit claims a range of play that is extended to 25 feet, two to three times the effective range quoted for the OEM unit.

The off-the-shelf accessory is fine in many cases, but it wont help you in others. Thats where your imagination goes to work. Remember again that all you are dealing with here are some IR LEDs at a fixed distance from one another, relatively equidistant from the center of the viewing screen. Think outside the box to fit the requirements to the need. Integrating this into any one installation will differ from another, but once you know how to do this it gets easier every time.

Remember, however, that any other strong infrared source within the viewing distance could throw things off, so remind clients not to get too romantic when they use the Wii by placing candles close to the screen. Experimenters have actually shown that candles spaced the proper distance apart can serve the purpose of the sensor bar, but that is probably not a good idea anyway, for a variety of reasons. If mood lighting is desired, find a better and safer way to supply it.

Perhaps a last word on the subject is to put in a plug for something that you should do with any installation that involves this sort of unique apparatus, no matter how simple it seems. The rule? Mock it up and make sure it works before you move the system to the job site. Yes, of course youll have to test again when you get there, but when things such as distances between components, placement of sensors or emitters, power levels and other variables are involved you really need to do the best you can to make certain that everything works before it leaves the shop. This sounds obvious, but youd be surprised how easy it is to sidestep this as an economy move. Dont do it here.

One other reminder for heavy Wii users is that the remotes are battery powered, unlike the sealed in batteries used in the PS3 remotes. It probably isnt a bad idea to fit a drawer somewhere into the theaters furnishings for the homeowner to keep a supply of batteries on hand.

Updates to Xbox 360
Having talked about Wii and PS3, a few words are in order here about Xbox 360. Other than the external HD-DVD drive introduced late last year, there hasnt been much to report on the hardware front, but as you might expect from Microsoft, quite a bit has happened on the software side.

Back in November, the Xbox 360 software underwent a significant upgrade, with the ability to render games and downloaded content in 1080p a major addition to the products feature set. Along with this, a wide range of promotional, television and film content has been made available through the Xbox Live service, giving the game console new life as a media server. With last months launch of the Microsoft Vista operating system the features previously offered through Windows Media Center Edition were enhanced, with the Ultimate version of Vista providing the widest range yet of PC/home entertainment interoperability options. With the console system upgrade and Vista Ultimate you can use the Xbox 360 as a media extender to access content stored elsewhere on the home network, and view it in HD.

The next major upgrade to the Xbox 360 software is likely to appear late this year. On the second anniversary of the system were promised an upgrade that brings an IPTV compatibility suite that further extends the consoles use beyond mere gaming. In the meantime, if game console upgrades are beyond the interest or technical ability level of a client, the current upgrade is one that youll want to make certain has been applied next time you are in the home for a system check. Time will tell if the rumors are true that well see price cuts for Xbox 360, or more important, a newer version of the console that will better compete with PS3. The game blogs have variously claimed that the current white unit will be offered in black, perhaps to meet the look of PS3, but it will be interesting to see if HDMI, the one important connectivity feature missing from the current unit is added, along with a larger hard drive and a built-in HD-DVD drive. Although anything is possible, dont look for Blu-ray playback. We could always be wrong, but that seems as likely to happen in an Xbox as HD-DVD appearing in a PlayStation model.

Which Do You Pick?
Now that youve installed them, networked them, upgraded them, and figured out the ins and outs of the three game console contenders, should you specify any one of the new generation game consoles above all the rest? In a word, no.

Game play is as much of a subjective thing in many ways as speaker selection. If someone is a dyed-in-the wool Halo person, theyll stick to Xbox regardless of the availability of Blu-ray in PS3, if someone cant wait for the next Zelda or Donkey Kong, the less than HD graphics of Wii wont bother them, and a player who likes the PS3 version of sports game franchises wont switch to Wii no matter how much fun the Wii Sports games are. You get the picture.

Since some of the popular third-party games are available on two, or even all three of the platforms, a call as to which platform is better can get a bit harder. In preparation for this article we did play some of the cross-platform games on each of the systems, and there was no strong gotta have recommendation on one side or the other. From a graphics standpoint, our expert player and his associates gave a slight edge to PS3, though the advantage over Xbox 360 was slim. When it came to game play, same title comparisons favored Xbox 360, though at this point in PS3s product cycle it may be too early to cast that judgment in stone. As game developers become more familiar with the ins and outs of creating PS3 titles, as well as cross-platform porting, it is likely that game play will be reasonably identical between the two higher end console platforms.

The best bet? If the pre-job survey leads to a specific console, the answer is simple: give the clients what they want. No special preference? Each of the three platforms has their own high points that are not duplicated by one of the others. All three share certain installation issues in terms of game play area and network connectivity requirements, leaving the balance of the issues to be incremental. Indeed, incremental is also a good way to describe the cost of adding all three consoles to a major home theater installation, so why not cover all bases and present the argument that they dont add more than a few percentage points to a grand scale job? With all three consoles you assure satisfaction, keep the system flexible and up to date, and deliver added enjoyment that is much more than incremental and well worth the cost.

Michael Heiss (capnvide[email protected]) is an industry consultant in Los Angeles, California.