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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 March 2007, 12:14 GMT
The evolution of game controllers
By Diarmuid Mitchell
BBC News

The Xpad Bodypad game controller
The Bodypad controller helps gamers exercise while they play
Over the last 30 years home video games and consoles have evolved at a dizzying rate.

As have the devices we use to play them - morphing from the humble paddle and joystick of the 1970s to the early game pads of the 1980s and beyond.

There has been a bewildering array of new games with unorthodox games controllers in recent years, with everything from dance pads to plug-in guitars appearing on the market.

One of the biggest hits to make use of non-standard controllers has been the Buzz! series of TV-style quiz games for PS2, which are sold with four buzzers - simple devices that let the players answer multiple choice questions.

Ease of use

David Amor, creative director of Relentless Software, the firm behind Buzz! believes the game owes much of its success to the simplicity of the controllers.

Buzzers work because they form a really easy interface that allows four people to play together straight away, said Mr Amor.

He believes there has been a swing away from complicated games and controllers in the home gaming market.

"The NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] followed by the SNES [Super Nintendo Entertainment System] and N64 and GameCube controllers seem to have got progressively more complicated and progressively alienated more people along the way," says Mr Amor.

The evolution of game controllers

"It's fine if you've grown up with them, but most people haven't, so to jump straight in with a controller with 13 buttons is scary."

It is a trend that other games developers and hardware manufacturers are taking heed of.

Nintendo's Wii console is designed to make game control simple and intuitive - the player only has to wave the controller like a wand to affect the onscreen action.

Rob Saunders, spokesman for Nintendo UK, is convinced that the Wii's ease of use has been behind its popular appeal.

"We realised that when people saw a traditional, modern day joypad they said, 'Where do I start? I have no idea!'," said Mr Saunders.

With 4m Wii units shipped in its first year, it is clear that the simplification of gameplay and game controllers has struck a chord with gamers, and perhaps attracted a new demographic to gaming.

Both Sony and Microsoft have elected to keep the standard design of the controllers for the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles but have added wireless, and in the case of the PS3, replaced the vibration system with motion sensors, giving the controller six axes of manoeuvrability.

Enhanced gaming

But while some manufacturers have been simplifying their products and games to attract new people to gaming, hardcore gamers are being offered ever more peripherals to enhance the gaming experience.

Novit Falcon game controller
The Novit Falcon feeds in-game gun recoil back to the player

So if you have a deep commitment to gaming and even deeper pockets, there are some interesting "gameware" gadgets emerging on the market.

The Novint Falcon for PC, which goes on sale later this year, touts itself as the first controller to make 3D touch possible for home computer applications.

The Falcon's arms allow the user to move the handle, or grip, in three dimensions, translating into movement on screen.

But the Falcon also pushes back.

Its motorised arms react to events and actions in the game, feeding that force back to the user so that gunfire makes the grip recoil, lifting objects makes the grip feel heavy, and taking fire batters the handle in the corresponding direction.

Xpad's Bodypad for PS1, PS2 and Xbox consoles is designed for "exer-gaming", giving games players a full workout while playing fighting, sport and dance games.

The Bodypad consists of four strap-on body sensors for the arms and legs combined with button controls held in the fists.

The sensors and controllers communicate wirelessly with the Bodypad's receiver which is connected to the console.

The player's movements are replicated by the onscreen character, allowing kicks, punches and combination moves to be made.

Virtual reality

Another device which bridges the gap between physical reality and the in-game world is eMagin's Z800 3DVisor.

The 3DVisor is a virtual reality headset with two microdisplay screens that combine with a headtracking system to give the player a 360-degree view of the game world simply by moving their head.

Buzz! game controller
The simplicity of the Buzz! controllers helped the games sell

Although the Z800 3DVisor is ideal for first-person shooter games on PC, its $1000 (500) price tag probably puts it out of reach of all but the most dedicated gamer.

Gamers with an interest in virtual reality, but who cannot afford the Z800, may find what they are looking for with the next generation of games that make use of the Eye Toy for PS3 and the Live Vision Camera for Xbox 360.

"In the next couple of years we are going to see some really interesting applications using Eye Toy technology," said Brian Crecente, editor of Kotaku gaming website.

The Eye of Judgement board game, unveiled by Sony at the E3 games expo in Los Angeles, is an interesting example, said Mr Crecente.

The prototype strategy game uses real cards which come to life as mythical creatures on screen thanks to a camera attached to the PS3.

Although some commentators doubted the appeal of The Eye of Judgement's gameplay, it succeeded in demonstrating the potential for blending reality and the in-game world for the home gaming market.

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