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Innovation is the key

POSTED June 15, 2010 9:49 p.m.

Back in 2006, Nintendo obtained a license to print money — an arm-waving, flail-centric, world-changing license to print money.

When the Nintendo Wii was released to the world, everyone became a gamer. With the Wii’s intuitive motion controls, playing videogames was no longer a task mired in the arcane art of button pressing. It became something based — at least loosely — on real world tasks.

Even grandma could bowl with the Wii. Because all you had to do to bowl was actually, you know, bowl.

The only tricky part seemed to be the whole remembering-not-to-let-go-of-the-Wii-remote-because-it’s-not-actually-a-bowling-ball business. You’d be amazed at how many televisions I shattered because of that.

This week, Microsoft announced its own bid for a money-printing license — the Kinect.  The motion control device — an add-on for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console —will launch Nov. 4 at an undisclosed price.

The Kinect is fairly groundbreaking at first blush. Rather than requiring gamers to hold controllers that sense their motions, the Kinect relies on a few infrared cameras and some high-tech math to sense players’ entire bodies. Just stand in front of the camera and your body is in the game controlling your player character, no controller getting in the way.

If nothing else, the Kinect will result in fewer smashed televisions — there’s no remote to slip through your fingers as you bowl.

The Kinect even allows gamers to control their Xbox 360 through voice commands with its built-in microphone. It’s a pretty cool piece of kit, and one that has the potential to remove any remaining barriers between potential gamers and the games they’re playing.

Microsoft seems to be aware that the Kinect has the potential to become the best motion controller. They’ll be spending millions on a media blitz this fall to convince you and I to purchase a Kinect.

But they have a tough sell in front of them.

With 53 million Nintendo Wii consoles sold, most everyone who wants to play with motion control already has the means to do so. How many people will spend a few hundred dollars to do the same thing all over again, just with better graphics and with no physical controllers?

I’m fairly sure the Kinect will be a money-maker, but it won’t be the world-changer that the Wii was. Because, quite simply, Microsoft missed the point of the Wii.

The Wii was never about motion control. It was the fruit of years spent researching on a “blue ocean” strategy to expand marketshare by targeting a previously untapped market. Motion control was just the means by which Nintendo could bring in new gamers.

Wii was a massive hit because it was something no one had ever seen before. It was new; it was exciting, it was full of potential.

Instead, all Microsoft seemed to hear was “motion control makes money.” So they said, “me too” and got in on a shrinking pie in an established market.

Kinect is just an incremental advancement, not a revolutionary one.

This is a mistake I see all the time. Companies forget that you can’t change the world a second time in the exact same way.

Companies see Apple products and think, “Oh, if I use good industrial design people will buy my wares!” But that’s not it at all, given the scores of failed iPod clones.

The industrial design is just an outward sign of Apple’s attention to detail throughout the whole design process. People buy Apple products because they work well, not because they look good.

Similarly missing the point were the scores of Major League Baseball teams who decided to start signing players with high on-base percentages after seeing the Oakland A’s success with their “moneyball” strategy. But moneyball wasn’t about players getting on base; it was about finding statistics which were currently undervalued in baseball.

As those other teams have driven up the cost of on-base players, the A’s have begun to pursue other undervalued assets. They’re still exceeding expectations, considering their payroll.

Microsoft will certainly sell Kinects this fall. But imagine what they could have done by focusing on something new, instead.

Nintendo still gets it. They’re not riding the motion control gravy train forever, and they know that.

At their press conference this week, Nintendo announced a new handheld system called the 3DS.

Sure, the 3DS has motion controls built in. But that’s old hat at this point.

The system also breaks new ground, offering a 3-D screen that works without 3-D glasses.

With the 3DS, you can play 3-D games, games unlike anything you’ve played before. You can watch 3-D movies, the same movies as seen on the big screen in the palm of your hand. You can take 3-D pictures with the built-in camera.

With the Kinect all you get is a new way to flail around to virtually achieve virtual goals.

With the 3DS, you can do things you’ve never done before. And isn’t that what we all want to do?

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com, call 634-9141 ext. 2005, or send him a demo Kinect or 3DS for a full review.

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