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Last Updated: Friday, 18 February, 2005, 15:38 GMT
Gaming's new real-life feel
Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
BBC Click Online North America technology correspondent

From joysticks and clip-on steering wheels to dance mats and the EyeToy, peripheral gaming devices have come a long way, as Ian Hardy reports.

Peripherals have moved on from the simple joystick
In its time the Powerglove was a peripheral heavyweight, as were joysticks.

But not anymore, thanks to improvements in processing power and various wireless technologies.

The goal now is to come as close to a real-life sporting experience as possible.

Many activities that involve a racquet, bat or ball have been replicated on the small screen.

However, getting gloves and gadgets to interact in real-time with the visuals has been uniformly less than perfect.

Among the most successful were the first joysticks for Flight Simulator, which worked well thanks to minimal graphics.

Real-life feel

For the past 25 years manufacturers have been struggling to put players "in the moment", to capture the thrill and excitement of a real life activity and condense it down into ones and zeros.

Dean Chang from Immersion Corporation says: "There actually are technologies available today that give you some of that sense.

"These products cost $10,000 upwards, up to $100,000, and are used by big companies like Boeing and Ford to immerse their design engineers in this environment where they can interact with their airplane or car designs, and actually do assemblies and disassemblies."

Budget is a major factor, of course.

Peripheral makers are salivating at the prospect of the XBox 2 and PlayStation 3 launches
But thanks to advances in consumer technology, such as video and sound cards, faster data management and ever improving wireless systems, accuracy, speed and response are all getting better.

Some companies are combining different wireless technologies to produce a realistic end result.

Rachel Woodland from Xavix says: "For example, with baseball or tennis we use infra-red, which picks up the speed and direction of your swing.

"With our bowling game you have a reflective surface over the ball and we use an optical sensor, so you get the feeling that you're actually in a bowling alley, and it picks up the movement and direction of the bowling ball.

"With our brand new golf game we're going to have an optical sensor as well as infra-red, so you get speed, direction and whether your club face is open or closed to see if you hook or slice."

Physical interaction

By design, Xavix peripherals work best when the player is standing up and moving around, but the gaming industry as a whole has been criticized for producing a whole generation of overweight, joystick-wielding couch potatoes.

One of the most popular games has received a recent upgrade, now called Dance Dance Revolution Extreme, and there are all sorts of athletically demanding challenges available.

World champion gamer Jonathan Wendel
If you do not have the best equipment you will not win
World champion gamer Jonathan Wendel
One device, the Kilowatt Sport, is in effect a giant joystick, and is supposed to give you a muscle-building isometric workout as you play.

Greg Merril from Kilowatt Sport says: "I think we're seeing the beginning of a new category of interaction with computers.

Now we're seeing the blending of physical interaction, much more natural interaction, with gaming systems like the PlayStation and Xboxes. The Kilowatt is a natural extension of this new revolution."

Peripheral makers are salivating at the prospect of the XBox 2 and PlayStation 3 launches.

The consoles promise higher quality graphics, a greater sense of realism and greatly increased response times.

In the PC world, faster 64-bit chips will become the norm, but players may become more demanding when it comes to the devices they use.

For World Champion gamers like Jonathan Wendel, known as "Fata1ity", it takes only seconds to evaluate a new peripheral.

It has to either increase scores, decrease times or ideally both.

Jonathan Wendel says: "When you're playing professionally you have to have the highest equipment possible.

If you do not have the best equipment, you will not win. Of course skill is a huge factor, but when you get so high in the skill factor it basically comes down to who has the best equipment and who has the best mental game."

Manufacturers are also beginning to take more risks with peripherals.

Remember when wearing a blinking Bluetooth headset was an open invitation to be stared or even laughed at?

Not these days.

And that is also true with peripherals.

Those in the industry agree customers are ready to wear silly looking suits, or use bizarre contraptions, if the experience warrants it.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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