Will the Nintendo Wii keep its lead?

They have a patent, but is it enough to help them keep their experience unique?

I purchased a Nintendo Wii just before the holidays for a simple reason: There has never been a console game that kept me interested. Punching buttons reminds me too much of the ceaseless typing I do now.

The Wii is a great system because they made the risky choice. They choose to create an entire experience rather than enter the technology arms race. If you have not had a chance to play with one yet, I can tell you it virtually brought work to a halt in our office for two days. People weren’t going mad over the graphics, it was the physicality between them, the game and the people they were playing with. The graphics matter so much less because of the fun they are having with other people and you can’t help but move around a lot when you play. There are a number of reports about just how aggressive this movement can be, note this lovely image off Engadget Sony is clearly concerned as the Wii is outselling the PS3 in almost all markets and a spokesperson for Sony made the amusing observation “the Wii is an impulse buy.” Pretty strong impulse on the part of the people willing to line up outside Target at 2am to buy one. “Honey, I can’t sleep. I think I’ll get a nice glass of warm mil…no, I’m gonna get a Wii, that’ll help!”

The question is can they keep this short lead? The technology in the Wiimote is wonderful because it shows how fairly simple technology can be put together in a compelling way to make something much more interesting. Accelerometers, Bluetooth connection like you have on your cell phone and the plain old IR just like your TV remote. All of this is combined in an interesting and compelling way. The question is, is it clever enough to prevent Sony or Microsoft from being the oh-so-dangerous Fast-Follower?

What they have done is possibly patent existing technology into a new form, its done all the time to everyone’s benefit. Let’s say you patented the eraser, and person #2 patents the pencil. A third can patent the idea of attaching an eraser to a pencil. Sure you can sue person three from using your patented eraser, but you are suing to prevent them from selling more erasers for you. The question for Nintendo is this wonderful combination unique enough to be their own?

I found a patent Nintendo filed in 1999 (#7,145,551) for a “Two-handed computer input device with orientation sensor”

wiimote2.jpgA hand held computer input device includes a first housing portion having at least one user actuable input device. A first extending handle is coupled to, and extends away from, the first housing portion. A second handle is also coupled to, and extends away from, the first housing portion. An orientation sensor is coupled to the first housing and is configured to sense a physical orientation of the first housing portion. The orientation sensor provides an orientation signal indicative of the physical orientation sensed.

The question will be how clever the patent have been written and trust me, you want clever. It has to be broad enough that it covers current and past technology and anticipates future technologies. But, it can’t be so broad that it is generic and covers everything. So, I give it 9 months, MS or Sony will bring out something similar for their consoles, the lawyers will be let off their leashes and the games will begin.

There’s no choice really, Nintendo is betting on the best killer app being another human being. Sony and Xbox are betting on technology. They will have to open up the human experience to approach why people are excited about the Wii. That means getting past this patent.