How the Wii remote's speaker may change the way we listen to games.
The big secret feature of the Wii controller, eagerly anticipated for months ahead of E3 2006, was in fact quite small. The Wii Remote's built-in speaker left most of us scratching our heads. Nintendo gave only a brief mention about the feature at their press conference, and there was no practical demonstration either in the Kodak Theater or on the E3 show floor. Only a couple of first-party game demos were using the feature at all, but even these couldn't be heard very well due to the overwhelming noise of the expo. Developers we spoke to were unsure of how the feature would be used. Although we believe Nintendo told developers about the speaker before E3, it wasn't supported in development kits until just before the show or possibly afterwards. In short, the speaker remains almost as much a mystery as it was before E3, and Wii is set to launch only a few months from now. I'd like to discuss the potential of this feature and speculate on some of its future applications.
What Nintendo has said about the speaker is intriguing. At the E3 press conference, Bill Trinen said that the speaker can provide "immersive sound" and more depth of sound. In Zelda, the speaker makes sounds when you use the sword, bow, or fishing reel. The bow and arrow example is particularly clever, because it corresponds so well to how you hold a bow in real life archery. As you pull back the string, the sound of the string in tension travels from the televisions speakers to the controller's speaker. When you let the arrow fly, the whistling sound of its flight quickly travels from the controller's speaker back to the television speakers. The whole effect might be greatly amplified if you actually had to pull back the Wii Remote to fire arrows, but as of E3, this action was performed by pressing buttons only. Imagine that stretching sound playing right next to your ear as you pull the controller way back, just as a real bow and arrow is stretched back near your ear before the arrow is released.
What's interesting about the speaker application in Zelda is that it demonstrates the potential of "depth of sound". Nintendo may have found a cheap, novel way to bring surround sound, or at least something akin to it, to a mass audience. Let's face it, a decent surround setup for the living room costs at least a few hundred dollars, and you could easily spend thousands on a high end receiver and good satellite speakers. Even then, the effect works best if you are seated in one particular spot in the room, where all the speakers point together. Such a setup would generally not work well for Wii, because many games require (or at least suggest) that you stand up and move around while playing. Multiplayer games will be even more chaotic. Plus, Wii is aimed at a more mainstream audience than traditional consoles, and most of the new people Nintendo is hoping to reach do not have extravagant surround sound setups at home. With the Wii Remote's speaker, these people can get some of the same immersion with just the controller itself. This practical alternative to surround sound was demonstrated at E3 by Wii Sports, wherein the speaker emits the sound of your virtual tennis racket hitting the ball, which gives a surround-like effect in this game very much based on multiple people moving around the room.
With the built-in speaker, each player in a multiplayer game can have his or her own sounds pumped to the controller, which may open new gameplay possibilities that were not technologically possible before. Goro Abe, the director of Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, told us that his game may include some activities in which sounds play in the controller's speaker and you must react to those sounds. Depending on your position in the room and whatever else you're doing with the controller (which could be almost anything, knowing this game!), this use of the speaker could be significantly different than just playing the sounds from the television.
Although Wario Ware is not technically a multiplayer game, something like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers could use the controller's speaker in much the same way the GBA speaker was used in the original FFCC on GameCube. Depending on the speaker's volume (which is selectable with buttons on the remote) and your proximity with other players, the game could even send you secret hints and instructions, like the individual objectives in the original game. With the speaker set on low volume, it would be simple enough for the television screen to indicate that players should hold the remote to their ears for a personalized hint.
When the speaker was first revealed, some people immediately pointed out that most speakers can also function as microphones. Apparently this is true, but the sound quality is very poor – this is the method used by most Walkie-Talkies, to give you an idea. We don't know whether Nintendo will provide enough developer access to the speaker to enable such a microphone mode, but if they do, it could only be used for some very crude functions. Do you really want to be blowing on the controller the way you have to in every crappy third-party DS game? Anything more sophisticated, like voice chat or a karaoke game, would need a real, external microphone or headset. The good news is that such a device could easily be connected to the expansion port on the Wii remote, maybe even with a pass-through port to also connect the nunchuck attachment.
Even with speaker functions alone, the Wii Remote's built-in speaker is quite an interesting little feature that has never really been attempted in console gaming, except for some minor usage in the "heyday" of GameCube-GBA connectivity. The true potential of the speaker to change the way we listen to games is ultimately dependent upon the quality of the speaker and, more importantly, the creativity of game developers. In that sense, it's really a perfect fit with all the other strange features of the Wii system.
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