Xbox SmartGlass: did Microsoft just render the Wii U controller obsolete?

One surefire way to make sure your company gets out in front of the E3 buzz? Launch a pre-pre-E3 press conference, of course. Nintendo was already set up to kick off the show on Tuesday, getting the party started according to tradition with an early morning press conference ahead of show floor opening. As it has in the past, the gaming giant was scheduled to be the third of the big three, unveiling its wares a day after Sony and Microsoft had their moments to shine. For 2012, the company made an unorthodox play, opting for a small broadcast event the Sunday afternoon ahead of the show, with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata standing alone in an unassuming wood-paneled room, giving yet another sneak peak into the world of the Wii U.

Popular opinion has positioned E3 2012 as a make-or-break proposition for the company. Nintendo's had an unprecedentedly rough year, with a continually eroding sense of excitement around its aging Wii console and a lukewarm reception greeting the 3DS. And with mobile competition nabbing pretty sizable chunks from the company's casual offerings, Nintendo needs to remind people what the console can bring that handsets can't. In earnest, Iwata offered up a smattering of additional details on the Wii U, with a finalized layout for the system's tablet-esque controller, the introduction of Miiverse social functionality and the promise of a bit of mobile device compatibility.

It wasn't a particularly impressive event -- just a single shot in a tiny room supplemented with a bit of b-roll, including a top contender for one of the dorkiest promo videos in the history of the gaming industry. The company is surely saving the real fireworks for Tuesday, but was no doubt hoping that it could also manage to keep its console at the forefront of industry chatter as Microsoft and Sony rolled out their own explosive events. And really, such a proposition doesn't seem like a huge stretch -- after all, the Wii U is largely expected to be the only major piece of hardware shown off by the big three this year.

But while Microsoft held to its hardware-free promise, the company had something else up its sleeve. As expected, Redmond trotted out a feature called SmartGlass during its press conference at USC's Galen Center indoor arena this morning. Early reports positioned the service as the Xbox's answer to AirPlay, a description that proved fairly apt, though Microsoft certainly went a ways toward fleshing that perception out during a demo at its event.

Start watching a movie on your mobile device and you can pick up where you left off on your TV when you get home. SmartGlass also positions your tablet or handset as a supplemental screen, offering up contextual information for movies and games -- play a game of Madden on your TV, and you can make plays on your tablet. And what of remote control and trackpad functionality? That's all there, too. Oh, and Microsoft even briefly touched upon the feature's ability to bring added social functionality to the experience.

Sound familiar? It should. These are the sorts of breakthroughs Iwata was harping on during Nintendo's pre-pre-show. Yep, Nintendo was just beat at its own game. Where the original Wii's innovative gameplay saw competitors playing catch-up with their own motion controllers, Microsoft has introduced an added feature to its existing platform that will go head-to-head with the Wii U at launch. While the launch details of Nintendo's next-gen console will likely remain hazy until tomorrow morning, we expect the thing to hit around the holidays. SmartGlass, on the other hand, has been given a fairly broad fall release date.

Not only is Microsoft promising to take the Wii U on directly with SmartGlass, it's doing so with a much more logical implementation, harnessing players' existing technology, rather than bringing a big, hefty new controller into the picture. Naturally, Microsoft has the upper-hand in that respect, having developed its own PC, smartphone and tablet operating systems. Nintendo, meanwhile, has been outright defiant when it comes to mobile integration, having taken a firm and vocal stand against non-console-based mobile gaming. The company briefly touched upon future mobile plans -- ones that were down the road past the Wii U launch and would rely on mobile browsers, rather than actual, Nintendo-branded smartphone apps.

Where SmartGlass is lacking, however, at least from what little we've seen from its functionality, is an ability to actually serve as a controller -- for the moment, there's no sticking your tablet on the ground as a tee for your golfing game. But perhaps that lack of functionality isn't surprising -- after all, the Xbox 360's core competency is hardcore gaming, and the thought of playing Halo 4 on a touchscreen keeps us awake at night. Down the road, however, it's easy to envision SmartGlass on tablets serving as a controller for some of the simpler, family-friendly Kinect titles.

In the meantime, however, Microsoft has just thrown up a major roadblock so far as buzz around the Wii U is concerned. It's easy to draw the longstanding distinction here, casting the Xbox as a hardcore gaming device against the Wii U's family-centric, more casual position. Ultimately, however, Nintendo clearly sees its new console's graphical boost (and optional traditional Wii U Pro Controller) as a way of recapturing some of the hardcore set it was perceived as abandoning with the first-generation Wii.

We already knew that the company would have a hard road to hoe at this year's E3 -- with the introduction of SmartGlass, that road just got a lot harder.