Smitten with Nintendo's motion-sensing Wii remote, which helped popularize interactive entertainment amongst mainstream audiences, its chief rivals are also launching gesture-tracking interfaces designed to help players literally get in the game.
But while Sony's wand-based PlayStation Move and Microsoft's controller-free Kinect promise a more user-friendly control system than traditional gamepads, they may, both literally and figuratively, rub audiences and game makers alike the wrong way.
Launching Sept. 17, the PlayStation Move, a wand-like remote tipped with a glowing ball, offers strikingly accurate on-screen precision when mimicking actions such as swiping swords or swinging bats.
Debuting on Nov. 4, the Kinect does it one better, eliminating handheld components entirely, using a gesture-tracking 3D camera to track natural movements, effectively making your body the controller.
Each provides a surprisingly satisfying hands-on experience. Each will launch with an array of simple, casual amusements ranging from virtual pets whose fur you pretend to stroke to motion-powered mini-game collections and sports simulations.
Unfortunately, each will also run you roughly $300-$400 (the cost of the individual accessories plus a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 system) to enjoy, and the last I checked, there's nothing casual or nonchalant about that.
Motion-Control Gaming Systems to Cost $300-$400
Likely to sell to existing PS3 and Xbox 360 owners more than newcomers, it's surprising that there isn't more traditional game software for these devices that's aimed at diehard enthusiasts.
Sony hopes to lead the charge with support for hardcore titles like military blaster SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy Seals, platform-hopper cum game creation toolkit LittleBigPlanet 2 and trigger-mashing gunfight Killzone 3.
For now, Microsoft is leaving the battle to third party publishers such as UbiSoft and Konami with psychedelic shooter Child of Eden and arcade snowboarding challenge Adrenalin Misfits, respectively.
But while novelty value, brand loyalty and the thrill of being an early adopter can carry sales of the gadgets for a time, it's hard to see the fit between current customers and the present software selection. Sales may quickly taper off after an initial holiday run as a result.
Current Gesture-Tracking Tech Hints at Potential
While these add-ons will potentially help expand each system's audience, without any killer apps or must-have game offerings shipping immediately, it's hard to see the incentive for fans to upgrade en masse.
Present uses for these technologies are primitive, merely hinting at their potential, and with no existing user base, there's little financial incentive for game makers to double down on it or push the envelope.
Even if they didn't have to be concerned with already supporting dozens of platforms from the iPad to social networks, or building bigger games more akin to services than products, developers also face several fundamental challenges when working with these units.
Presently, few game designers know just what feats such hardware is capable of. Fewer still know how to take best advantage of it, as creating games designed for play in a 3D space is a completely different art than that of designing for 2D systems.
Motion-Sensing: A Gimmick or Gaming's Future?
Worse, coupled with a plateau in Wii sales, and precipitous worldwide drop in purchases of software for the console, shoppers' interest in motion-sensing gear may also be cooling.
You could rightly argue that the Wii's motion-tracking capabilities made it an instant hit with shoppers when it launched in 2006, and that, software-wise, mostly quick cash-ins and throwaway junk have been released since. But the situation does call to mind several questions.
Specifically, whether or not motion-sensing features served less as an actual conceptual revolution and more as a gimmick to catch viewers' attention (the system certainly looks like fun to play, and is hard to ignore).
And, of course, just how big the overall demand for such titles is, or if gesture-tracking is desperately in need of some new, more imaginative applications.
Recently, game makers have struggled to produce so-called "active" gaming concepts that truly spark the imagination beyond incorporating support for basic motions such as tossing pretend footballs or swinging fake golf clubs. Players have similarly grown weary, in every sense of the word, of attempting to substitute commands easily issued by wiggling a thumb with exhausting full-body gestures.
Could Multi-Functional Kinect Be Applied for Everyday Electronics?
If neither can find a compelling excuse to convince you to keep a much ballyhooed gizmo like the Wii Balance Board from collecting dust, it's hard to see how, in largely aping Nintendo's approach vs. bravely charting their own course, other manufacturers would fare better.
For now, it remains to be seen whether Microsoft and Sony's latest efforts are actually just fancy solutions screaming for a problem to address.
Odder still, in fact, is why a system such as Kinect, which also lets you casually videoconference, browse menus with the flick of a wrist or issue spoken commands, isn't instead being better applied as an interface for everyday electronics?
Much of America still can't program a VCR.
Imagine if anyone could simply walk up to a TV, say "Netflix," browse their film queue with the wave of a finger, and then nod to watch Gladiator or The Notebook.
Designed to extend the lifespan of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to a supposed 10 year horizon, these devices do offer at least one guaranteed upside. By delaying the launch of new video game systems, they spare console makers and software developers the headache and costs associated with adapting to the needs of, and creating software for, new devices.
Instead, all can focus their talent and resources on current machines, resulting in cheaper hardware prices on one end, higher-quality games that leverage established experience and technique on the other.
Whether it's enough to get audiences up and moving though this fall, let alone dipping into their pocketbooks, with smaller, cheaper and less technically advanced downloadable or digital titles presently gaming's hottest development, remains dubious.
For now, I'll be content to keep my rear firmly planted on the couch, thumbs on the controller and eyes peeled on more traditional offerings like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Fallout: New Vegas instead.
Scott Steinberg (@GadgetExpert on Twitter) is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and creator and host of online video series Game Theory. He frequently appears as a high-tech analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.