Nintendo’s New Wii U Console May Not Change Gaming, but It Will Revolutionize Television

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Nov. 14 2012 2:35 PM

Nintendo’s New Console Will Change How You Watch Television

The Wii U may not transform gaming, but it will revolutionize the boob tube.

A Wii U console and Wii U’s tablet-like touchscreen controller.
The new Wii U console and Wii U’s tablet-like touchscreen controller.

Courtesy Nintendo.

Nintendo’s Wii U is better than its enormously popular predecessor in all the expected ways. The new console, which comes out on Sunday, has more processing power and prettier graphics than the six-year-old Wii. But what’s most noteworthy about the Wii U is its new controller. The Wii U GamePad combines the buttons and motion sensors of the original Wiimote with an iPad-like touch screen equipped with a microphone and a camera. This will allow kids to play a hi-def Mario game on the tablet while their parents watch something else on the TV. It also enables new types of gameplay. The gory horror game ZombiU, for instance, uses the tablet as an overhead map, a keypad for electronic doors, an inventory screen for juggling weapons and tools, a crosshairs view when you’re using a rifle, and even an augmented reality display. Hold it up in front of the TV, and it seems to scan the virtual environment and reveal previously hidden items.

Will the Wii U and its new controller change the way people play games? Possibly. Will the Wii U achieve the same level of success that the original Wii did (nearly 100 million consoles sold)? Probably not. It costs more ($300 for a basic version and $350 for a more full-featured version as compared with $250 for the original Wii) and, as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote last year, Nintendo is now struggling to compete with the iPhone and iPad as well as rival consoles. But I am confident enough to make one big prediction: The Wii U will revolutionize the way we watch television.

I must confess that I haven’t seen the TV functionalities of the console in action. (Almost no one outside of Nintendo has—those features have not yet been turned on in the early Wii U units that have gone out to reviewers.) And when the TV functions do launch, you can expect the initial version to be incomplete and buggy. But I’m still going to pull a Nate Silver and bet you 1,000 1-Up mushrooms that the Wii U will push multiscreen viewing to dizzying new heights of input overload.

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The most detailed look at Nintendo’s TV plans came at an event in New York this September. Amid demos of various new games, Nintendo of America’s Zach Fountain showed off a service called Nintendo TVii. (That’s pronounced “TeeVee,” meaning that it, er, sounds exactly the same as TV.) At the most basic level, TVii turns the Wii U’s GamePad into an interactive guide to all of your streaming and subscription viewing services. Tap the 6.2-inch tablet to search for shows across Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, YouTube, your DVR, and your cable provider. You can get suggestions based on your viewing preferences, set it to record shows, or jump in and start watching whatever is available.

As you watch, you can use the GamePad to post screen captures and comments to Facebook, Twitter, or Nintendo’s social network, called Miiverse. (I know, I know.) Nintendo is also promising features like live polls and has started partnering with broadcasters to, for example, provide a stream of scores and stats on the GamePad as you watch college football on Saturday afternoon.

Nintendo isn’t the only company to realize that more people are watching TV with a second screen close by. Shows ranging from The Mentalist to American Idol have started helpfully suggesting hashtags that you should use to live-tweet your viewing experience. And if Twitter and Facebook aren’t TV-centric enough for you, there are a myriad of “social TV” apps that are vying to host your real-time oversharing. Meanwhile, apps like Shazam allow you to hold your phone up to your TV to identify a show based on the audio, then connect you to additional content about the show.