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Nintendo News Network?

In 1996 I was addicted to my screensaver. It ran as a series of transitions between novel content played at a pleasing rate; like most screensavers there was always something new to look at. This was different because the new was new, through the magic (hype?) of 'push' the screensaver, Pointcast, downloaded news content to stay evergreen and presented it in a style that could be likened to a polished powerpoint deck. If you can remember the web-milieu of Netscape 3 you know how impressive the combination of fresh content and a graphically rich display was. Previously we had seen each in separate venues, the former through the world-shrinking power of the web and the latter via CD-ROM, but the combination presented in Pointcast was a specific, hype-laden harbinger of the rich, freshly-updated online world we now take for granted.

Pointcast was the stereotypical flash in the pan but the notion of a personalized, graphical 'news channel' has persisted in the collective ether to find its latest instantiation in the Nintendo Wii. It's a curious move for a game console, but speaks directly to Nintendo's desire (implicit or otherwise) to capture the contested set-top. Anyone buying a Wii today will boot it up to find a menu offering Wii Forecast and Wii News "channels" (in game-land you can never be too literal with the metaphor) both controlled through the endearing point and click interface of the Wii remote.

Left: Category browser. Right: Manual story browser, alternative to slideshow mode.

Benefitting from the fun1 of the native Wii interface and the context of a gaming platform, Wii News essentially performs a Reuters RSS feed2. This performance is one of the most interesting aspects of the Wii system as a foundational notion and represents a return to the promise of Pointcast, but much more fun. On a casual timer news stories from a selected category fade onto the screen replete with a geo-locator and photographs if either can be mined from the article. One may allow the feed to scroll by, animating cleverly between stories with just enough variety to keep you engaged (the machine equivalent of a newscaster's eyebrows) or dive into the full text of an article. That this whole affair is the result of dynamically processing a feed of content demonstrates how impoverished current RSS readers are. To be fair, Slashdot feeds may not benefit from animated transitions and geo-locators, but nevertheless it's encouraging to see some thought into how we access specific kinds of feeds: news benefits from the accouterments Nintendo has provided, what would a tech feed benefit from most?

Left: Typical view of slideshow mode. Right: Typical story view layout with animated geo-locater.

The presence of an ambient soundtrack guides the viewer through their browsing experience and fills one of the most glaring gaps in the Pointcast experience-- that deafening silence-- with a more pleasing alternative to the constant droning of CNN Headline news. In other words, Wii News is everything that the average news channel is minus the hype, the editing, the commercials, and the fake tan. Surprisingly, however, there's still quite a lack of interaction. There's no way to customize the feed besides choosing a category (National, International, Entertainment, &c.) and no control over the speed of the slideshow. What little interaction exists is in the form of a global news browser which, while being a joy to use, is not particularly useful for anything other that briefly wowing your house guests.

Two views showing globe navigation with data loading incrementally based on zoom level.

While not benefitting the news viewer so much, the global news browser is a great, fun way to visualize the day's news in a comparative fashion. Not to mention that as a way of visualizing an entire RSS feed it's quite nonchalant, even intuitive. By showing the stories stacked up on their locations around the world, it forces one to interact with the screen-- to grab the globe and throw it into a spin Google-earth style-- to grok the totality of the news environment. This interaction is part of what makes Wii News so appealing: when you've had your fill of running on autopilot there's always a game-like, playful interaction awaiting to punctuate your experience. Even banal things like changing the text size are animated with stereotypical Nintendo cuteness. In the closed world of Nintendo, mannerisms like this escape the label of obnoxious (like zoom rects) by existing as part of a gesumtkunstwerk. In effect, Wii News is a perfect case study in proving that if you're going to do something, do it all the way and any extravagances will be allowed as simply the likely result of the system.

When changing rhe text size all of the words animate as they reflow the new text size onto the screen.

Though, quirky animations are not to be totally dismissed as they are an essential part of the acclimation process in the world of Wii. Separated by the depth of the living room and a slight latency in the cursor, using the Wii Remote to navigate the screen can be ever-so-slightly disorienting. The subtle alienating change in point-and-click dynamics that the Wii Remote presents as opposed to a standard GUI are mitigated by effects on screen and in the Remote itself. The array of sensors in the Remote allow increased reciprocity between the user's manipulation of the input device and the graphic representation of these actions on screen. Simple things like the orientation of the cursor become subtle clues that you're connected to the Wii more deeply than you think: roll the controller to the left or to the right and your cursor will rotate to follow. Mousing over buttons on screen results in simultaneous visual, audio, and tactile feedback benefitting from the vibration module in the Wii Remote. All of this escapes the status of being obnoxious because the interactions are limited-- I'm not sure that I'd want MS Word to react to me this way, but it's fine for a little browsing and the limited requirements of setting up a game of tennis. The major advance of the Wii interface may be a prolific, nonchalant application of sensor technology but it's supported-- importantly so-- by a concomitant, confluent use of reactive interface clues.

The Wii doesn't necessarily represent a great leap forward in interaction (all of its technologies have existed for quite a while). What it does best is prove the benefits of careful, steady application and refinement of technological advances to result in a congealed thing that has the power to redefine the competitive basis. In a market that is already home to a wide variety of gamers the Wii may not become a breakout, Ipod-like success3, but it does seem capable of redefining the rules of the engagement. Like Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo is clearly vying for more than just the gaming part of your life. With a set-top platform that allows for such rich interactions and clear first steps towards the performance of content, I'm anxious to see what else develops in the Wii channel browser: if there were a single dial left in my life, I wouldn't be touching it.

1. The rumors are true, the Wii is a categorically different experience. Not only in its means of control, but also in the thoroughness of the way the interface and experience have been crafted.

2. One assumes that there's an RSS feed. Though I haven't seen any explicit reference to it, a feed would be the easiest way to achieve these results.

3. Though it is doing rather well right now, it seems unlikely that the Wii's decidedly playful aesthetic will be able to unseat the reign of Xbox and PS3 in the lucrative 'adult gamer' market.