Iwata Asks: Wii U GamePad Edition

The second of Nintendo’s “Iwata Asks” interview segments about the Wii U hardware has now been published! This time, they’re talking about the Wii U’s trademark GamePad controller – how it came to be, the long process of trial-and-error to get it just right, and how they hope it will energize the userbase all over again. As usual, I’ve broken down the interview into a nice, neat bullet-point overview for those who don’t want to read through some of the more mundane stuff. It’ll be easy to find the details you’re looking for!

Read on for the breakdown.

  • Iwata says that the GamePad in its final form runs like a charm, but that it took a lot of work to get it to that point.
  • Toru Yamashita worked inside the Integrated Research and Development Division. He worked on the firmware for the GamePad as well as the software that connects it to the main console. He built the system whereby the Wii U GamePad receives images from the Wii U and sends data from the controller to the system, as well as its TV remote functionality.
  • Kuniaki Ito is from the same division, but he was responsible for the technical design of the GamePad, including the integrated circuit design and reducing latency. He also designed the Wii Remote and MotionPlus.
  • Kenichi Mae worked on the wireless communication systems for the GamePad and the console itself.
  • Masato Ibuki worked on the industrial design of the GamePad. He had to optimize things like size, weight distribution, and overall feel. Instead of using 3D modeling exclusively and “printing” those objects using a 3D printer, they often carved the minute nuances of designs out by hand.
  • Tat Iwamoto is from the Nintendo Technology Development, Inc. department (in America). He was in charge of determining the GamePad’s functions, as well as SDK development and the development environment. He often had to hold phone meetings due to the time difference! A number of engineers from NTD contributed to the design of Wii U, including David Tran.
  • Developing software based on wireless communication involves a whole new level of optimization, as it has to run regardless of environmental factors.
  • Two of the big concerns about sending images and video wirelessly out the gate were compression and latency. this involved an aggressive approach compared to usual wireless video transfer methods. They had to bring on a number of other companies to help optimize this communication.
  • Genyo Takeda, general manager of the division, helped select these companies, including MegaChips Corporation (which helped with the integrated circuit development).
  • “Generally, for a video compression/decompression system, compression will take place after a single-frame of image data has been put into the IC. Then it is sent wirelessly and decompressed at receiving end. The image is sent to the LCD monitor after decompression is finished. But since that method would cause latency, this time, we thought of a way to take one image and break it down into pieces of smaller images. We thought that maybe we could reduce the amount of delay in sending one screen if we dealt in those smaller images from output from the Wii U console GPU on through compression, wireless transfer, and display on the LCD monitor.”
  • This solution required less memory, less power consumption, and therefore resulted in less latency.
  • “Generally, compression for a single screen can be done per a 16×16 macroblock. And on Wii U, it rapidly compress the data, and the moment the data has built up to a packet-size that can be sent, it sends it to the Wii U GamePad.”
  • They had to test some methods of error concealment, since they didn’t want to sacrifice latency for image quality.
  • The Doppler effect – the phenomenon that wave frequencies can differ based on the relative speeds between the source of the waves and the receiver of the waves – made it difficult as well, since the GamePad can be moved around during gameplay. It can be held horizontally or vertically, making it a challenge to adopt an ideal antenna placement. They could have added more antennae, but that would have added to the cost.
  • In terms of whether you’ll be able to use the GamePad far away from your TV, Iwata says: “Differences will arise depending on whether you live in a house made of wood or an apartment of reinforced concrete, and what materials the walls are made out of.” You’ll also have to be careful not to put the Wii U itself in too concealed a space in your entertainment system as this could deflect the signal.
  • Because the GamePad can be used as the primary screen and can be carried around the house, a lot of people might forget about the console.
  • Test the GamePad in your home to see how well it will work in various spaces.
  • They had to increase the bitrate to stabilize quality after compression and decompression than they originally projected.
  • Manipulating computer generated images to display things in a way that’s appealing to the human eye is more challenging than manipulating photographs, since the way the image is displayed in the first place has to be addressed.
  • Early on the compression process posed some problems – all the way up to right before E3 2011! They had to deal with gridlines showing up and compression noise (i.e. the video issues you see sometimes with YouTube videos). Some games had less noise than expected; others were surprisingly troublesome. “…a big surprise was how so much noise appeared in Super Mario when coins came rushing out.”
  • Broadcom Corporation helped Nintendo by contributing certain technologies and capabilities. Takeda-san says “guts” are what make solutions happen.
  • You might have already guessed this from the redesigns, but… “The tea table got overturned three or four times for the Wii U GamePad design.” At first they had Circle Pads but switched to analog sticks; at first the GamePad was flat but later they added grips. We saw the first design at E3 2011.
  • They tested the GamePad’s usability by playing a version of the NES Mario Bros. on the GamePad and decided it wasn’t quite comfortable enough. Miyamoto spearheaded the idea of making it more like a traditional controller in terms of grip.
  • The final form for the grips was designed to be comfortable for both large and smaller hands. This was one of those cases where those hand carvings were very helpful.
  • A lot of effort was put into reducing the weight of the GamePad. They chose resins instead of metals for the chassis. Almost every decision took into account how much weight it would add or subtract. Their goal was a weight of about 500 grams. This is the most they’ve thought about weight for any platform, even handhelds.
  • NFC was added kind of last minute. They never expected that function to be included.
  • At first they’d send images via wire to avoid interference, but now that it’s in its final form they’re surprised by the quality of the images when sent wirelessly.
  • The “tech-savvy” will be surprised by the lack of latency.
  • Yamashita: “The Wii U GamePad displays so quickly, and because many of the newer televisions have latency due to their video processing components, that there are times when the Wii U GamePad will display images faster than the television that is actually connected by a cable. So if you play on the Wii U GamePad, whatever the game, there won’t be delay and you can operate it more comfortably.” Following this, Iwata comments about the GamePad “beating TV.” A hint at Nintendo’s ambitions, perhaps?
  • Mae teases a Wii Sports game that uses the GamePad.
  • This is the first home console to come with a camera without any wires or special attachments. They built in the wireless communication features for the camera onto the same integrated circuit as everything else; you have to compress and decompress images twice to send them from the camera to the system and back. They actually almost abandoned the camera entirely.
  • Iwata: “At the present stage, I sense two sides to the Wii U GamePad. One is that this is the first home game console that allows one person to play video games while someone else watches television. The other is how the television becomes even more attractive when you use the television and Wii U GamePad as a set.”

Source: Iwata Asks at Nintendo