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Johnny Lee: Wii remote experimentation a happy accident


NWF: At the TED conference, you talked about the accessibility of the Wii and the projects you're working on, like the interactive whiteboard, the demonstration of head tracking, etc., and how that accessibility motivates you. What do you think this means for other people doing similar research, either formal or informal? Because it's so accessible, will we see similar projects?

JL: I don't know. I guess if you consider the work I've done to be somewhat either motivational or inspirational, then sure. I think that would be great, to see more work like that. In general, I think there's always been room for the type of motivation that I've presented, coming up with really cheap solutions that may not necessarily provide 100% of the capabilities of some of the higher end options, but are good enough for a wider population, and as a result, it becomes attractive technology not because it's the best, but because it's the most accessible. And actually, it's probably less novel of an idea than some people might think. I've been reading a book called The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, and he introduced the concept of a disruptive technology, and for the most part, his definition of a disruptive technology sort of fits that description of a technology which may not necessarily provide the most outstanding performance but does have a much different price point and as a result becomes much more attractive. His book wasn't necessarily my inspiration, but I guess you could say I came to the same sort of conclusion on my own. It's been a motivator in my work, and if it's a motivator in other peoples' work, that would be great, but I don't necessarily see a reason why it would become more or less popular than it was before.

NWF: Most of the other projects that we've seen that involve the Wii remote are just using it to play other games. Why do you think so many armchair developers and researchers are focusing on that aspect?

JL: It's easy and obvious. I think it's sort of the most straightforward thing to do. If you have a controller that you can talk to, what else can you control? This input device has, for example, an accelerometer and an accelerometer is very good at detecting tilt, so you make something that needs tilt control, like a video game. I've also seen some projects which use it to detect the orientation of a screen, and they have a virtual ball that moves around. If it's good for detecting orientation when you rotate it, then people will start out by coming up with orientation-based ideas. It's sort of the first degree idea, and it's going to be the one people do first simply because it's the easiest.

NWF: One of the other things you talked about at the TED conference was that people in schools were already using some of your ideas, like the interactive whiteboard. Do you think that any of these projects will suffer any sort of stigma when it comes to schools because they're affiliated with gaming? At its base, this is technology associated with gaming, because that's what you're using.

JL: That's an interesting question; I haven't encountered that one before. My guess is that, if the technology provides an economically attractive solution, that bottom line will overcome the association with the gaming industry. In some circles, gaming technology is becoming so sophisticated that it's earning respect in more general technological appreciation circles, and people are taking games more seriously -- especially with this generation of kids who are growing up with video games and technology. Some educators would find the ability to somehow turn a gaming technology into an educational product very appealing, because you can maybe appeal to the children a little bit more. I think that, if there's an institution which says "we're not going to look at the Wii remote because it's a gaming technology," they're a little bit short-sighted, and they'll be in the minority in the coming years.

NWF: I certainly agree with that! But on that same line of thought, do you think that a gaming console can help change the way society interacts with computers?

JL: Yes! I think it's done so already. If you think about computing in general, it includes a wide variety of technology. Usually, when people say computers, they're thinking of something with a keyboard and a mouse, and maybe a web browser and a word processor on it. Computers include your phone, your microwave, and most living room devices like DVD players and stereos. I would argue that the video game console is in fact a computer, and in the circles that I run in, that's a relatively non-controversial concept. But the kind of activities people think about doing with a gaming console currently are limited to playing video games, and as a result, if it's not productive, people don't think it's really a useful computer. But in fact, the console is becoming a very, very powerful computing platform, and so for example, things like surfing the web become much more plausible in a console format, as does accessing on-demand video, as well as more sophisticated things like programming your digital video recorder. If you just think of this as a general computing platform, it's a channel into a wide variety of computing tasks. They may not have word processing, but it's no less computing for that. I think the game console tends to evolve a lot faster than the desktop computer, where people are really attached to the keyboard and mouse, and it's really hard to pitch a new input system that may not... well, the keyboard and mouse is so efficient that a new input system has to compete with that efficiency and cost, and thus it's always very difficult to work in that space. But in the gaming space, you can experiment with lots of different input technologies.

NWF: There's so much convergence now with the gaming consoles -- they're doing so many things, like media centers, and those traditional computing functions -- and you can do so much beyond just playing games. Do you think that's connected to the kind of experimentation people are doing with the Wii remote and other consoles? Do you think that the one follows the other? Would people have thought of these things if gaming consoles weren't expanding the way that they are?

JL: To some degree, I think the experimentation with the Wii remote is independent of the integration aspect of the platforms, largely because the integration of the all-in-one living room device is a corporate agenda, and the operating systems that allow the consoles to do that is not open. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all control that. The experimentation with the Wii remote, on the other hand, I think was an accident. Mostly because Nintendo did not necessarily intend to support open experimentation with the controller, and as a result ... I think everything done with the Wii remote was completely unintentional on Nintendo's part, and the fact that they did nothing to stop people has allowed a lot of exploration. The integration of the consoles and the experimentation with user interfaces with the Wii remote are somewhat independent of each other, though they deal with the same commercial domain of video game technology.

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