Progress Is Not A Straight Line.

Never dismiss or completely disregard what has come before; it may yet have its time to shine…


 

If you listen to gamers or the gaming press, you’d think failure is the end of everything.

Those of us with a little more –  shall we say, ‘Experience’ – will of course denounce such linear thinking in technology. The path of progress is never a completely straight line, never the relentless march forward that many proclaim it to be. New ideas and new inventions will of course always be hotly anticipated and interesting to the majority of us – but so much of what we have now, and accept now in gaming terms, did not magically transform our industry on first contact with the market.

Technological progress is part invention, but also part reinvention; transforming that which has failed once and attempting to reapply, repurpose and repackage it into something with more selling potential. You never have to look far to find examples of technology that already had at least one failure under its belt.

Take, for example, the touchscreen. Did you know that during the 90’s, it was attached to the technological millstone of the PDA? A kind of digital filofax, these devices came with touchscreens and were often developed and manufactured by the likes of Microsoft and Apple, both of which came up with their own operating systems for such devices. Sound familiar? Well, by the turn of the Noughties, the PDA was never more than a niche product and the touchscreen was largely panned as a result – a gimmick, a novelty even. Indeed, in 2004, another company who dared to reinvent the touchscreen was largely and roundly criticised for utilising such technology – that company was Nintendo, and the device in question was the Nintendo DS. Its most successful handheld console ever, it became a runaway hit – and a scant few years later, in 2007, Apple finally got around to the notion of the iPhone to make touchscreens an indisputable force in the smartphone landscape. We didn’t just end up with touchscreens as they are now; the path to the successful devices we have today is littered with multiple failures of the PDA, and the forward-looking idea from Nintendo to reassert the technology and make it useful in a gaming context – not that it was always successful. Super Mario 64 3DS was… yeah, let’s forget using the touchscreen as an analog joystick…

Currently, there is a lot of hype for VR. Now, I understand the hype – even if I can’t enjoy it the way others can – but take a step back and look at the technology that has been repurposed for your VR Headsets today; Stereoscopic 3D has tried and struggled in 3DTV’s, monitors and arguably even the Nintendo 3DS to some extent. The remote-style controllers harken back to the Nintendo Wii, with the Wii Remote and its Nunchuck attachment which was great for many genres of video game but struggled with so many others. Even the motion tracking and visual sensor borrows heavily from the worn path that Microsoft’s Kinect device has already been down.

VR exists as it does now not because it’s a new invention – heck, do we need to discuss the Nintendo Virtual Boy here? That came to market in 1995! – but because the technology required for it has been tried, fallen down and the pieces have been picked up and repurposed for this new avenue of visual splendour. Well, for those who can see it properly, of course. It still has required a lot of investment, and a lot of research and development to get to this stage, but the technology we see in VR now has already been done before. It has taken twenty years for VR to come around again, and a good decade for the technology to come together, but here we are. The ‘progress’ people are looking forward to is neither a new idea, nor utilising anything that hasn’t been seen and done before.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t progress though – reinvention counts; one man’s trash is another man’s gold mine. The Wii Remote itself wasn’t exactly a new idea either; motion controllers had been doing the rounds since the 80’s. We’d seen camera interaction before too, with the Game Boy Camera and the PS EyeToy.

What if if we had derided the CD-ROM after the failings of the CDi and the Sega CD – would Sony have utilised it for the PlayStation? Perhaps, or perhaps not. CD-ROM became a standard on a practical point; cartridges had storage limitations that CD-ROM could surpass, which was essential at the time. Now card-based media is poised to overtake Blu-Ray, are we really going to stick with optical media knowing it has hit its own wall, that consoles can process the data faster than it can read it from the disc? Cartridges never went away – they evolved. Flash drives and SD Cards are the descendants of those old, bulky cartridges and have grown up to be more practical, more environmentally friendly and better for gaming now as a whole. The cartridge has been reinvented and reinvigorated by the passing of time and the evolution of technology – so is it fair, or even reasonable, for so many to dismiss it so wildly out of hand when we’re fine with sticking a 128GB Micro SD card into our tablets and smartphones?

It may be the Nintendo NX will utilise card-based media; for a powerful system aiming for some 4K Output, optimal data processing is critical. Card-based media is better positioned for this; are we so naive, so pig-headed to dismiss the technology because it reminds us of something that came before? Oh wait, Nintendo’s handhelds have for decades used card-based media. It never died out. It just waited… and plotted out the road to the day it would once and for all overthrow optical media mwahahahaha- oh wait, it may be one day in the future, optical media transcends its current limitations and becomes a better media format than SD media. And you’d be silly to judge it based on its past then as well.

That’s technology for you; it’s imperfect. But we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. After all, look at Sony as it transitioned from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3, in their hubris proclaiming that people would take second jobs to afford one! And Nintendo, with the Wii U, following an unparalleled success with the Wii. And Microsoft, after capturing such attention from third parties for so many years, squandering it with the XBox One. No-one sees the flaws in success – the glint of money blinds them from their imperfections. Yet, a failure is different. We can see the shining gems in pools of darkest pitch – and it is much easier to latch onto those gems as a result.

I’ve said before that failure is an important part of success; companies need to make mistakes to learn from them. But technology as a whole isn’t inherently about success or failure; it’s about finding the right part for the right job – oftentimes inventing the square peg and patiently waiting for the square hole that fits it to be invented later. That might seem like a silly analogy; but it is how we have so much of what we take for granted. Analog sticks, D-Pads, rumble technology, touchpads, online services – all had been attempted before, and all had been attached to failures at one point or another. And we wouldn’t dream of our gaming lives without any of the aforementioned inventions, would we?

People tend to be so dismissive, and the gaming and tech media loves to bash on the “old-fashioned”. But those people are – I mean this nicely no I don’t – idiots. No-one should stay in one place; and denying card-based media today because oh, we’ve done cartridges before – isn’t that staying in one place and sticking with the ‘old-fashioned’ media because it’s what you’re used to? How dumb is that? And then to ignore the multiple elements inside VR which have been borrowed and repurposed? The hypocrisy is almost hilarious. Old ideas can be made new again with a bit of imagination. And new ideas may take time to establish – there’s no such thing as a sure bet in technology, or gaming. After all, if it were, the Wii U would be king of all it surveyed; taking the DS-style dual-screen that sold over a hundred million units and transplanting it to the home console market would make complete sense on paper. And perhaps the NX will make good on this potential; or maybe they won’t, and it will be Sony or Microsoft down the winding roads of progress who standardise the technology.

So please, don’t dismiss anything so casually. If we listened to common consensus, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We don’t need to fear change, nor the reinvention of what has gone before.

It might just be the tonic we need.

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