Second screen has been the battle cry of the those searching for the next frontier in home entertainment since the dawn of the iPad, and now E3 2012 has focused the idea very much upon the specific world of gaming.
We all had a pretty good idea of what Nintendo had in store with the Wii U and its dedicated Wii U GamePad, we saw Microsoft make an announcement along similar lines with the unveiling of Xbox SmartGlass and, just in case anyone had forgotten, Sony reminded us that it already has a second-screen device that can talk to the PS3, the PS Vita. So, are these things all the same, or does anyone really have a genuine advantage?
Nintendo Wii U GamePad
The Wii U GamePad is, apparently, all about changing three things - the way you play games, the way you interact with friends and the way you enjoy your TV. Precise details of exactly what it can and can’t do have still to be revealed and, perhaps, even realised by Nintendo, but we do know what it will look like, what controls and ports it will have and we have seen plenty of demos of how it works.
One area where the Wii U GamePad may turn out to to have the edge is that it’s a dedicated device designed specifically to work with the Wii U console. Everything that it’s suppose to do will be tried and tested with that exact piece of hardware in mind and that should make for smoother and probably more ingenious operation. So, whatever companion gaming that you might be getting on with will be specifically designed with the GamePad’s 6.2-inch 16:9 aspect display in mind.
Another possible benefit of the Wii U GamePad system is the nature of the connection between the controller and the console itself. IR is the signal mode of choice - effectively a closed loop between the two - and that should ensure the connection stays true no matter what you’re trying to do. Minimal lag, minimal mistakes, minimal interference.
Gamepad and screen in one
The entertainment and social side of the equation may be fair enough on a tablet or a smartphone but the gaming link-up is simply going to be better on a device with its own, hard joypad controls. Sure, it’ll be possible to use a second screen as well as a dedicated controller with the Xbox system but it might make for some limitation, or the need to grow an extra pair of hands.
Two GamePad’s at once
We don’t know what Sony and Microsoft have got up their respective sleeves but Nintendo has confirmed that you will be able to use two Wii U GamePads with the same game, at the same time, as demoed in the case of Super Mario Bros U. Again, that kind of simultaneous use might be less important with non-gaming activities but, again, it demonstrates how deep Nintendo is looking to go with the idea of second screen.
Let's clear something up here: Xbox SmartGlass is an app and it'll be available for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Android devices, as well as Microsoft's own Windows 8 and Windows Phone operating systems. It is designed to convert your existing gadgetry into a companion screen, and as such may just blow Wii U out of the water.
The idea is simple. Download the app, hook it up to your Xbox Live account and away you go. It talks to your Xbox 360 and helps to control entertainment and interacts with games that have purposely been adapted to be compatible. Sounds good. So what else should we be bearing in mind?
The battery life is a double-edged sword when it comes to using a second-screen device that also happens to be your smartphone. You’re going to run that battery flat awfully quickly. That said, if it’s a tablet, well, you’ll get plenty of use and, what’s more, the Wii U GamePad promises only 3-5 hours of battery life at a time anyway; not very long for hardcore gamers.
The real sell of the Xbox SmartGlass system is that it’s an app and, as such, is not device specific. You don’t need to buy an expensive controller, you don’t need another piece of kit knocking about the lounge and you can even use your controller when you’re away from home without lugging around and extra lump of equipment in your bag. If it were that simple, Microsoft would have this tucked up right there.
No need for new console
At the same time, Microsoft isn’t asking as much as Nintendo because you don’t have to go out and buy a whole new console with a whole new set of games to get its second-screen experience up and running. Xbox SmartGlass is coming this winter and, as long as you’ve got an Xbox 360 and an Xbox Live Gold account, you’re laughing. Oh, and a smartphone/tablet would be useful too, but you’ve got one of those, right?
For all the reasons above that the Nintendo Wii U GamePad sounds tight, one has to wonder whether SmartGlass will suffer at all by being reliant on lots of hardware manufacturers, software systems and possibly even a connection medium that’s used by all sorts of devices in your home at the same time. There’s something that feels rather Android vs iOS about this and, if there’s one thing we can say about the difference between those two mobile platforms is that the Apple way of doing things is easier, smoother, works that little bit better and suffers none of those app fragmentation problems. Will Xbox SmartGlass suffer the same troubles as Android? Hard to say but the potential for those problems is there.
On top of all that, if Wi-Fi is used as the backbone of the set-up and there could be even more problems with interference from other smartphones, tablets, computers and whatever else you own that works on your home network. That said, our hands-on Xbox SmartGlass demo at E3 ran like clockwork.
Sony PlayStation Vita
Keen not to be left behind, oddly, despite starting out first, Sony announced plans to bring new features to the PS Vita to enhance its second screen potential. The handheld gaming unit already works quite nicely with the PS3 but here’s what to look out for as this space hots up.
The Cross-Controller feature allows a player to use the PS Vita as a controller to play games on PS3, much as with the Wii U GamePad. Very familiar so far.
Cross-Play lets gamers and their friends benefit from sharing those titles that they may have in common. So, allowing PS3 and PS Vita owners to enjoy match or collaborative game play. Again, much like what we saw with Mario and Nintendo Land at the Nintendo E3 press conference.
On top of that, there’s also Cross-Save which lets gamers manage saved data between the two consoles. So, players on the go can continue playing games on their PS Vita, right from where they left off on their PS3 at home.
Transferring bought content from one platform to the other is what Cross-Goods is all about and it would be a bit of a surprise if either SmartGlass or the Wii U GamePad discouraged and blocked that kind of activity. Money is money, after all.
Finally, there’s Remote Play, which allows PS Vita users to remotely access their PS3 to enjoy content including games and videos.
The advantage that the Vita and PlayStation system has over the other two is that the hardware is already in existence, so one might expect fewer teething problems. Despite that, users will still need to shell out on more accessories to get all of those features to work and, even then, not all of this will work with all of the games.
More Wii U than SmartGlass
The PS Vita second screen system looks to have more in common with the Wii U GamePad than what Microsoft has planned for Xbox SmartGlass. The local connection will most likely be a closed one, using Bluetooth this time, much in the same way that the DualShock controller operates. The advantage that it has over the Nintendo handheld, though, is that it is both Wi-Fi and 3G compatible meaning that your gaming on the go has the potential for a live link-up experience.
Not for all PS3 games
You can pretty much guarantee that the Nintendo Wii U GamePad will be compatible with all of the Wii U games, but the same will probably not be true for the PS Vita from this point forward. What that might mean is that although second screen is clearly possible with the PlayStation, that there’s not actually an awful lot of developers doing much about it.
The headline thoughts from what we’ve heard at E3 2012 are that the Nintendo Wii U GamePad sounds like the second-screen system that will work best and probably bring the greatest innovation to the gaming side of the equation in particular but there’s every possibility that SmartGlass could be just as good. The Xbox way might not be the smoothest and simplest to set up and run, but the fact that it works with the devices you already have, doesn’t require buying a new console and that the demos we’ve seen look compelling give it just as good a shot at taking off.
The PS Vita is the one that we’re least sure about. It’s not so much that it won’t work. There’s no reason to think that the hardware or software won’t be designed well. The concern is that it’s implementation might be a bit sporadic and the end result confusing for the user and a touch disappointing. It only takes a handful of your favourite new PS3 titles to ignore second screen before you decide it’s a waste of time too.
The bottom line about all of this is that we won’t really know until all three of the console giants have given us the precise information on what we can expect from their second-screen systems and we've had a chance to try them out. All three of them might prove a revelation to home entertainment or could just as easily be superfluous to the gaming experience. We only have one pair of eyes, after all. Perhaps just the one screen is all we really need.