Has the Wii U's Screen Been Upgraded for NFC?
Andre Segers
January 27, 2012, 9:35 pm

Imagine a console that blurs the lines between the real-world and fantasy. And I don't mean "augmented reality" like on the Vita and 3DS, I mean "included reality" (and yes, I just invented that term). A gaming experience in which physical figures interact with the virtual world. With this week's announcement from Nintendo’s CEO, Satoru Iwata, that the Wii U would have Near Field Communication (or NFC for short) built-in, I believe Nintendo may be pursuing this exact objective. There's only one problem: the Wii U's touchscreen can't fully support it...yet. 

Playing Mario Party with real game pieces may be a reality...

For the uninitiated, NFC is a wireless technology that allows two devices to exchange information simply by tapping them against one another. If you have a Google Nexus phone, or a PayPass Mastercard, you’ve probably seen this in action where you can make purchases simply by tapping your phone/card against the card reader. Other uses include exchanging files, such as pictures or video, simply by pressing two NFC-enabled phones together.

Iwata himself pointed out that this functionality will allow Wii U owners to “scan” specialized cards or action figures into compatible games simply by tapping them against the Wii U controller. This isn’t an entirely unique idea, as the recent Skylanders game by Acclaim for the Xbox, PS3, and Wii uses similar technology to bring your specialized action figures to life on the TV by placing them on the included “Portal of Power” peripheral.

Even Nintendo has dabbled in the idea with the e-Reader accessory for the Gameboy Advance, which allowed players to import new items and levels simply by scanning special cards like a credit card.

However, there’s far greater potential here than simply scanning in a character and having the figurine sit there impotently as in Skylanders. Instead, I strongly suspect Nintendo is taking a cue from Disney’s iPad game, Cars AppMates, which allow your figurines to interact directly with the game world through the screen. Check out some footage of it here:

Pretty cool, right? One doesn’t have to be a child to imagine the possibilities. Now because the iPad doesn’t have NFC built-in, the game uses a different form of recognition in the form of a unique capacitive footprint underneath each toy that allows the iPad to determine which Car is being used and which way it’s facing. However, while Disney’s method is creative, there are a few problems with it. For one, their method likely limits the amount of possible toys (or action figures) as there’s only so much room underneath each one for a “unique footprint” (which is bad news if you have 600+ Pokemon to market...) Secondly, that footprint never changes, meaning your Car can’t convey any other information aside from what it is, unlike Skylanders which actually saves data to each figurine, allowing it to be used on other player’s systems.

This is where the Wii U comes in. It has the possibility of greatly expanding on this concept by building NFC directly into the screen. Imagine being able to scan in any of the hundreds of Pokemon simply by placing them on the controller and having them battle right on the screen itself.  To dodge attacks, you physically move the Pokemon figurine. You could even “power up” those Pokemon by scanning in special cards to grant them specific abilities. And finally, all of this information could be saved to the Pokemon figurine itself so it can be used on any of your friend’s Wii U systems.

Of course, the ideas can expand far beyond Pokemon. Imagine a Mario Kart game where you physically build your custom cart using pieces in the real world, then simply place it on the screen to scan it in and use it in an actual race. The idea could even enhance 2-player games on the tablet, such as an air hockey game where each player holds a small mallet while they bounce around a virtual puck. The ideas are truly endless.

Imagine building your own Mario Kart using actual parts, then scanning it in,

There’s only one problem: The Wii U’s controller’s touchscreen technology won’t allow for anything similar to Cars AppMates. Because the Wii U uses a resistive type of touchscreen (as on the DS), it can only detect a single touch at a time, as well as requiring that point to exert some pressure (such as with the stylus). Basically, the Wii U’s screen would be unable to detect the exact location of a figurine due to these issues.

Which is why there’s a very strong chance Nintendo will announce at E3 that the Wii U will use a capacitive screen instead. By combining that with the unique NFC capabilities, it will open up myriad gameplay opportunities, such as allowing character figurines to interact directly with the gameplay, instead of acting as a simple on/off switch as in Skylanders. Although the up-front cost to Nintendo will be more (by virtue of capacitive screens being more expensive), Nintendo should have no trouble making it back by selling figurine sets that directly interact with a virtual world, ala the highly successful Cars AppMates.

Yes, this might be for kids, but there's much more that can be done with the technology.

Using a capacitive screen would have many other benefits as well, such as allowing users to use multi-touch gestures (pinch and zoom) as popularized on the iPhone and iPad, as well as allowing simultaneous multiplayer directly on the tablet itself (as is, multiplayer games would have to be turn-based, as Nintendo demonstrated in last year’s Wii U unveiling trailer).

Regardless of whether or not Nintendo actually upgrades the Wii U’s screen, the inclusion of NFC is exciting technology in and of itself. But I would love to see it taken to its full potential with the inclusion of a capacitive screen, which could only serve to enhance the entire Wii U experience. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait much longer to find out Nintendo’s exact plans for the Wii U as E3 is taking place in early June...okay, so maybe it could stand to come a little sooner after all.

Do you want your action figures to interact directly with the gameplay, or is it a terrible idea all-around? Let us know your thoughts on the Wii U’s use of NFC in the comments below! 

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