By Max Neopikhanov

(The Article has been edited to correct the 116ms figure quoted from Eurogamer.)

Nintendo is poised to achieve another hit with its upcoming Wii U console, thanks in part to their banking on the consumer becoming enthralled by Wii U’s tablet-like game controller.  Likely due in part to the overwhelming success of tablets in the consumer electronics market and the growing interest in cloud based gaming; Nintendo wants to bring in these consumers to the console market in the same way that it brought new consumers with the original Wii’s motion controller.

Sony and Microsoft soon tried to emulate Nintendo’s success with their own version of motion gameplay.  This time around, it seems that Nintendo has taken a page out of Sony’s playbook and turned what was originally a novel, complementary remote play feature of Sony’s Playstation Portable, into a prime selling point.

The idea is simple enough: play all your favorite games straight through the controller.  No television required, just maintain close proximity to the console and all the content will be streamed directly to the controller’s screen.  This was the original promise of remote play when Sony released the service a few years ago.  With the expensive cost of the Playstation 3, the PSP’s lack of a second analog stick, additional trigger buttons and an underpowered wireless 802.11b wireless card, remote play never quite reached its potential as efficient local game streaming.

Nintendo has designed the Wii U to overcome all the issues Sony initially had with the PSP’s implementation of the technology with the gamepad controller being and important and ancillary peripheral as opposed to the PSP’s supplementary and inefficient function as a mobile screen.  It is a much more efficacious approach and also much more expensive and risky, and risky moves have become Nintendo’s forte over the past few years with the Wii and the 3DS.

That’s not to say that Sony has thrown in the towel and given up its technology.  Sony has taken steps to improve remote play capabilities in its latest PS Vita handheld, but is it too late?

The struggling electronics giant has, at least in theory, all the tools and hardware, in the form of the PS Vita and the PS3, to make the Wii U gamepad selling point moot if it can overcome a few hurdles.

The Technology

The PS Vita communicates with the PS3 through 802.11n over a 2.4 GHz band – effective at about 25-30 feet.

The tech behind the Wii U pad has not been revealed but a Nintendo representative has gone on record to say the controller will have optimum performance at less than 8 meters, about 26 feet, which is around the same ball park of a Vita using remote play.

The range at which the device can communicate is largely unimportant if the latency is so great as to make games unresponsive and ultimately unplayable.  How will the Vita and the Wii U pad stack up?

Based on preliminary tests done by Eurogamer, the Wii U has latency of about 116ms ahead of an HDTV when playing New Super Mario Brothers about three or four feet away from the console, which is quite frankly, incredible.

My personal tests with the Vita through playing God of War over remote play yielded approximate results that, while somewhat higher, still allow the game to be enjoyed fairly lag free with an occasional, very minor lag spike.

Ultimately, the Wii U edges out against the PS vita when it comes to input latency, but is closely tied in signal strength, at least according to preliminary reports.

With games actually being playable and enjoyable on both devices, the next important factor is the image quality.  After all, most gamers wouldn’t appreciate low bit rate content at a very low resolution on their brand new device in the year 2012 – especially when high definition video can be streamed through cellular broadband to pretty much any device.

The Wii U tablet has been reported to boast excellent image quality that appears free of artifacting or other eye-sores often associated with streaming video.

Picture quality on the Vita isn’t as great but is generally serviceable

The device has three options that range from near perfect, albeit bandwidth demanding image quality that effectively requires a 15-20 feet distance from the console, to  very low bitrate, early 2006 Youtube-ish quality for poor signal conditions or when playing at more than 35 feet.

The middle option is functionally ubiquitous enough to be selected when playing at different ranges from the console yet provides a nice balance in quality between the other options.  Fast moving scenes may show some artifacts but everything generally looks pleasing to the eye.

The Wii U gamepad has been reported by Nintendo representative to have three different power levels based on range from the console, although the exact specifics of their effect on image quality have not been revealed.

Superior image quality during optimal conditions goes to the Nintendo Wii U, based on empirical tests and preliminary reports.

Perhaps the one area where Sony’s handheld can outperform and outshine the dedicated streaming technology in Wii U’s gamepad is the Vita’s support for remote play over a wireless internet connection.  If the distance between the PS3 console transmitting the content and the Vita receiving it isn’t more than a few miles, to avoid high latency, and the internet connection for both is fast and stable, then remote play can offer a relatively smooth and enjoyable gaming experience when far away from your home console.

You may not get decent performance using public Wifi while having a coffee at Starbucks but a dedicated connection at a friend’s house can possibly eke out enough performance to enjoy a game or two while away from home.

Nintendo could in theory announce similar support for the Wii U gamepad but nothing has been mentioned or discussed yet.

The Software

Sony’s remote play may have been around since the middle of the Playstation Portable’s life cycle, yet it seems that the company has only just elevated the feature from the hazy clouds of “neat concept” into the burning stratosphere of potential “system seller” with the release of the PS Vita.

With that said, Sony largely abandoned the feature in the Vita’s early months on the market and has only recently released updates for the God of War and the Ico and Shadow of the Colossus collections.  The company initially demonstrated remote play support on other major titles like Killzone 3, yet none have been released.

With the already supported remote play titles released in the PSP era, such as Lair and LEGO Batman, this brings the total of remote play compatible titles to only a handful PS3 titles, and all Playstation Network PS1 titles – which can be downloaded on the PS3 and transferred to be played natively on the PS Vita, erasing the need to stream them wirelessly.

It may be the right start to a future of growing support and improvements or it could be the unfortunate reality of too-little-too-late.

Most if not all of Nintendo’s first party efforts and many third party titles on the Wii U will support gameplay through the gamepad alone, though some games, like ZombieU and Assassin’s Creed curiously will not. Original Wii games have been reported to not be playable exclusively through the gamepad.  Still, it’s much more support than what Sony’s remote play is currently offering.

Cost and Value

Nintendo recently revealed a $299.99-$349.99 price range for the Wii U, a price point that is higher than any other console they have yet produced.

The gamepad, which is slated to be sold in Japan for about $173 in after currency conversion to USD, will be the most expensive first party controller ever released in the console market.  Still, a Wifi only PS Vita will set you back $250 at major retailers and with the cheapest PS3 SKU available at $250, the total cost of a remote play set up, at least at face value, could cost the consumer nearly $500 USD.  That cost could be lowered to around $450 if Sony reveals the all but confirmed PS3 revision which is rumored to retail at $200, at this week’s Tokyo Game Show.

If playing games remotely on a controller is your primary goal, then the Wii U, which can be bought for as little as $300 is likely the more cost effective option.  The more expensive PS Vita and PS3 combo benefits from Sony’s cross-buy initiative, where purchasing certain titles on the PS3 will accord a download code for the PS Vita version of the game, and from the PS Vita’s own library of software and features that the Wii U gamepad doesn’t have and can’t replicate due to the lack of on-board hardware processing.

The Future

Having just finished God of War through remote play on the Vita, I must say that the feature afforded me an opportunity to play a game I probably wouldn’t have played otherwise. Not having to turn on the television – At least on the Vita, the remote play feature allows the user to remotely turn on their console – is a huge incentive for those who, like myself, don’t always want or even have the time to set everything up and enjoy games in the living room.  Such a feature is what Nintendo is hoping will galvanize its target audience to give its brand a chance.

Studies have shown that the majority of users of mobile gaming devices, Android tablets, and the Apple iPad use their devises at home more than they do outside.  The Wii U pad may never take the place of a dedicated tablet device as a premier mobile platform but it may fulfill similar functions within the home when near the wii U console at a relative fraction of the cost of a fully featured tablet.  With that said, Nintendo has to be adamant to explain the difference to the average consumer who may buy the console thinking that the gamepad is a complete and portable gaming tablet.

Come launch day, Wii U owners will be able to experience playing games remotely at a larger capacity than PS Vita owners can right now.  But a couple things should be kept in mind as Sony looks to the future of the PS Vita and their next home console.  Firstly, the much tooted and presently underutilized 3G feature in appropriately equipped PS Vitas can potentially be used to access a Playstation home console from anywhere you have good signal, so long as there is sufficient bandwidth and low latency – two considerations that admittedly pose a challenge with current cellular infrastructures but that can be resolved and improved in the future.

Secondly, Sony will likely include the remote play feature with the PS3’s successor, allowing the next generation of Playstation content to be played remotely.  Cost to the consumer will likely be even more prohibitive in such a combination but improved encoding and transmission algorithms and better wireless hardware could make for a better experience.   Not to mention the prospect of experiencing next generation graphics over a wireless connection.

Sony is currently in a precarious situation where they have the technology and the means to disrupt Nintendo’s primary selling point of its upcoming console but don’t want to brand the Vita as a cloud gaming device at a time when publishers are having trouble moving software on the system.

Ultimately, the Wii U is set to become biggest and most comprehensive example of local wireless remote gameplay. It features a controller designed specifically to stream content as efficiently as possible and has the support of several high profile developers and publishers to provide content truly worth experiencing.

But if Sony continues to invest in and expand its technology and software support, like it has these past few weeks with updates of two PS3 titles for use with remote play, it may sway consumers to experience cloud gaming using Playstation hardware.

And with the future of cloud gaming services like the beleaguered Onlive in purgatory, support for “local cloud gaming” from major console manufacturers couldn’t be more welcome.

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