When Microsoft first unveiled a pair of smart covers with integrated keyboards as a key part of its Windows 8 tablet strategy last week, most commentators saw the move as an attempt to position the tablet computers more directly against standard laptops. But for gamers, the Touch Cover in particular could open up some interesting new PC game control options, if Microsoft and developers are smart enough to exploit its potential.
The key to the Touch Cover’s hidden potential as a new form of gaming control lies in the keyboard’s little-noticed ability to distinguish between different levels of pressure applied to each key. Microsoft’s Panos Patay points to this feature about 41 minutes after the video of the tablet announcement, highlighting how the Touch Cover “basically measures every ounce of force coming off my fingertips.”
In the presentation, this pressure sensitivity is mainly marketed as a way to improve the accuracy and speed of touch typing when using the cover, compared to flipping on a touchscreen keyboard. But a generation of gamers who made the transition from digital directional pads to analog joysticks know full well that measuring fine gradations of input can lead to more accurate, sensitive control for a wide variety of games.
A brief history of pressure sensitive buttons
While joysticks and pointing devices are the most common analog game controllers, there is a precedent for analog buttons in the gaming world. The earliest versions of the arcade cabinets before 1987 street fighter featured two large, pressure-sensitive buttons for punches and kicks, which varied the in-game attack power based on the physical strength of the player’s input (the default six-button layout reportedly came about after overenthusiastic players checked the hydraulics of the cabinets started breaking through with too much force).
However, most developers ignored the analog face buttons built into the controllers for the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox Metal Gear solid 2 notably lets players holster a aimed weapon by slowly reducing the power on the X button. Developers were eager to use the analog shoulder buttons on the Xbox 360 and PS3 to support things like variable throttle and braking in racing games or precision turning in flight simulators.
But those are handheld console controllers, with spring-loaded buttons designed to be gently pressed by crooked index fingers. Can similar analog control schemes work on a keyboard? Microsoft already answered that question to some extent when it unveiled a prototype pressure-sensitive keyboard in 2009. A demonstration video for the prototype shows that the company started tinkering with gaming applications for the technology three years ago. About four minutes into the demo, Microsoft Senior Researcher Paul Dietz demonstrates how the default WASD and space bar controls in a first-person game can be modified to allow for different walking and running speeds, as well as jump heights, based on how hard every key is pressed. “It’s really proportional control, it’s almost like having a bunch of joysticks on your keyboard,” explains Dietz.
A few more intriguing pressure-sensitive game prototypes came out of Microsoft’s UIST Student Innovation Contest that year. For example, BallMeR allows players to control a soccer ball by pressing the pressure-sensitive buttons to control the height of different areas of the pitch, providing a level of control that a handheld controller can’t match. Two MIT researchers used the keyboard prototype to create a simple rock climbing demonstration, in which the amount of pressure on four different keys controls the precise angle and pull of a rock climber’s hands and feet.
When approached by Ars Technica, Microsoft declined to comment on whether it would promote the potential game control applications of its Touch Cover tablet, or to confirm whether the cover’s printing information would even be visible to developers working with the tablet (rather than just used by the tablet operating system).
Still, some developers we spoke to seemed intrigued by the potential to bring analog controls to the digital keyboard.
“If you’re using a traditional game controller with buttons, you have to map all sorts of different non-binary actions to a controller with binary buttons,” says Dr. Bennett Foddy, creator of multiple game control experiments including QWOP And GIRP, says Ars. “Games like Mario Bros. Get around this by measuring how long you press the button – you jump higher the longer you press. But I think it would be more intuitive and engaging if you could jump higher by pressing harder.”
But other developers were skeptical about whether gamers would actually respond to a pressure-sensitive keyboard, or whether it was worth developing applications for a smart case that will no doubt represent a very small portion of the PC gaming market.
“I wonder how ‘juicy’ it will feel without the tactile feedback of pressing a button and hearing that little tap of the key,” Johann Sebastian Joust creator Douglas Wilson told Ars. “That kind of kinesthetic and tactile experience is important for making technology ‘feel’ good. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never been so excited about the smooth glass screen of tablets”
And even if the pressure-sensitive Touch Cover somehow captures the imagination of a critical mass of game designers and players, that doesn’t mean the games made for it will be any good. “Looking at other technologies like computer vision, the Kinect and accelerometers [like] the Wiimote, I think the industry is still struggling to figure out exactly how best to use them,” Wilson continued. “Speaking from personal experience, it took me years of experimentation to formulate an approach to using motion controllers such as the Wiimote/Move. “