One of the most intriguing announcements from this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo was Microsoft’s SmartGlass, a new feature for the Xbox 360 which will connect the console to users’ smartphones or tablets, giving games, apps, and media an interactive second screen. Most of Microsoft’s demos highlighted the sort of the content that we tend to associate with extra features on DVD or Blu-Ray: interviews with the cast of Game of Thrones, say, or a map of the show’s world. Where SmartGlass brings something new is its ability to run dynamically alongside whatever you’re watching: so as Game of Thrones characters travel around Westeros on your TV, you could use your iPad to track their movements on a map. It’s interesting to compare SmartGlass with Nintendo’s forthcoming Wii U, both of which arrive in time for this year’s holiday season.
Different Hardware, Same Goals
The Wii U’s standout feature is its six-inch tablet controller with the traditional analog stick, d-pad, and buttons alongside a touchscreen. Like SmartGlass, the Wii U controller will stream additional content from the console, as well as offer another way to control what’s on the TV. The Wii U will support only two of these controllers (though additional players will be able to use the now-familiar Wiimote), and while Nintendo hasn’t announced a price for the new controller, you have to assume it’ll be pricier than previous accessories: I don’t see how it could be much less than $90 unless Nintendo intends to take a significant loss at first, and even $90 feels like a low estimate.
Both Nintendo and Microsoft seem to be aiming for the same goal — an interactive second screen — but they’re going about it in fascinatingly different ways. In order to use SmartGlass, a user will download a free app for Android, Windows 8, or iOS. If that user already owns a compatible device, there’s no additional cost. It’s a stealth reconfiguration of the system, new hardware without new hardware. Nintendo, on the other hand, is opting for a more traditional refresh. Everything changes at once, and they hope the consumer buys in.
User Experience: Fragmentation vs. Uniformity
The potential benefits for gamers are the same: suddenly an RPG player might be able to switch out inventory on a second screen rather than pause the game and bring up the inventory window. Perhaps more significantly, you could play touch-based games like Angry Birds properly on your Wii U or Xbox — allowing consoles to more easily attract the same developers (and games) that are flocking to phones and tablets.
Of course, with SmartGlass, those without smartphones or tablets are left in the dust. And as with Microsoft’s Kinect, not all Xbox 360 users will have or use the technology — meaning, perhaps, less impetus for developers to implement it in new games and apps. Nintendo’s user experience, by contrast, will be relatively uniform, and it’s hard to imagine a Wii U developer ignoring the touchscreen altogether.
Only time will tell how Nintendo and Microsoft’s respective models fare, but their success or failure will likely hinge on the uses that developers make (or fail to make) of those second screens. I don’t know how long glorified DVD extras will hold users’ attention, but if you can create compelling content that’s made to be swiped and prodded? That’ll be gold.