Gamers everywhere are wondering what Nintendo can do next to top the Wii. Now that Nintendo has (finally) incorporated motion controls that don’t stink (hello, PowerGlove), it seems like virtual reality is the only logical next step. But what if Nintendo isn’t the company to debut true VR controls for the home gaming scene? What if it’s a dark horse company, one that comes from out of nowhere to make a home system not geared toward soccer moms and families but high-end consumers who just have to play their Halo 4 completely immersed in the virtual environment? A design group called NAU may just be that company.
NAU is currently developing the “Immersive Cocoon,” a human-sized pod akin to those seen in The Fly series of movies. Although CNN has discussed the I-Cocoon being the next generation of computer interfaces, the Cocoon is actually designed with videogames in mind. And while it certainly won’t be “the next Wii” in a literal sense, its immersion and interactivity definitely make it a candidate for what’s in store, at least conceptually.
“With full 3D surround sound and graphics as well as native Internet connectivity, the Cocoon is the ultimate gaming environment to challenge friends from around the world,” says NAU’s Web site for the Cocoon. “If action games aren’t to your fancy, why not try next-generation karaoke where you can play an air guitar with a virtual band or sing to an adoring, interactive concert crowd?”
Good questions indeed, and ones that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are all probably considering at this point, although arguably not in this grand a scale. The Cocoon includes motion-tracking cameras that track users’ movements, essentially doing away with the need for controllers connected to a console. Imagine using not the Wii Remote to hunt enemies in Metroid Prime 4, but your entire arm. Imagine ‘jacking a Wraith in Jalo 5 not by pressing the A or X button, but by literally jumping on the platform inside the Cocoon. This is the gaming world NAU envisions.
The 3D motion-tracking technology used in the Cocoon was, according to CNN, developed by an MIT researcher whose work also inspired “the ‘reach out and grab’ technology” in the Tom Cruise film Minority Report. Reaching out and grabbing in-game characters would inject an all-new level of immersion in gaming, and it would also enable the next generation of console interfaces (Microsoft’s Dashboard and Sony’s Home, for instance) to truly support user interaction a la Second Life — a vibe that Sony appears to be going for already.
NAU’s executive team plans to complete its Cocoon prototype by October 2009, with commercial models available five years later. It remains to be seen, however, whether the technology will ever be cheap enough for mainstream consumers. [Editor’s Note: A large part of the sales success of the Wii is, in our opinion, its relatively low cost and thus low barrier to entry.] And make no mistake, the Interactive Cocoon is definitely an expensive proposition.
As shown in the images accompanying this article, the I-Cocoon completely envelops users within its walls — definitely not a system for those with claustrophobia. Inside the Cocoon, a series of motion-tracking cameras in the dome act as the input devices and feed the users’ movements through compact processor units in its base. The visual output display on the LED display is then refreshed instantly to reflect the users’ movement. The result, according to NAU, is that “users can fight in a kung-fu game or swim through a sea of jellyfish, with the display responding in real-time and in surround vision.” That advanced technology isn’t an exactly inexpensive proposition, let alone for mainstream consumers.
Whether NAU can pull all this off is one thing. Whether they can create a system that actually supports this advanced interface for the most popular of the “hardcore games” is another. NAU has a technology team in place that appears qualified to deliver a successful Cocoon, but making the Cocoon a commercial success poses just as strong a challenge.
Gamers are continually on the forefront of technology and interfaces. From Dragon’s Lair to Time Traveler to the Wii, we always like to push technology to the limits. Does the Interactive Cocoon push those limits a bit too much, though? You’ll have to ask Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony; you’d better believe they’ve got people looking at the Cocoon, at least in concept.
Even if the Interactive Cocoon doesn’t appear in a home near you anytime soon — if ever — the prospect of this technology is fantastic. Game graphics and audio seem good enough as they are; it’s the interactivity, interface and immersion we’re most concerned with. If the Wii proved anything, it’s that most consumers feel the same way, even if they are labeled as “only casual gamers.” Yet even hardcore gamers must appreciate this technology. After all, if you wanted to truly “finish the fight” in Halo or eliminate the Helghast in Killzone, wouldn’t it be nice to literally do so yourself?
— Jonas Allen