With last week’s release of Nintendo’s long-awaited follow-up to the Wii console – the Wii U – it’s a good time to discuss innovation in the world of console design. In particular I’d like to focus on something which made the original Wii such a hit – its original hardware interfacing (i.e. controller) – which is something Nintendo have tried to develop further with the Wii U.

While the new console does feature some impressive hardware upgrades in the main unit, the real innovation once again comes with the thing you hold in your hands – the controller, which now also features a touchscreen as its main upgrade on the previous Wii device. My focus here is to explain how the controller became a key battleground of innovation for console designers – and how smartphone technologies pointed the way forward all along.

There was a time when console controllers were all pretty much alike – made of plastic and pretty limited in terms of the on-board technology. In the early years of console design you were guaranteed four to five buttons, a d-pad and/or a joystick. The main scope for innovation lay in the simple question of how to mould your plastic (ergonomics) and where to put the buttons. Certain games were compatible with specialist devices (steering wheels for racing games for example) but these were clunky and expensive add-ons rather than central features of the console.

To put it simply – the controller was not the main predicating factor in revolutionising gameplay. Occasionally something came along which looked revolutionary, such as the Nintendo 64 controller, but it ultimately always came down to a good idea about moulding the plastic in a new way and arranging the buttons logically upon it.

And then what happened? Well, affordable mobile phone technologies started to really push the boundaries of what kind of hardware could be incorporated into a small device – and the relative price of doing so.

Additional memory and various other upgrades were now offered into the on-board expansion slots of controllers. Infra-red, radio frequency, and wi-fi transmitters soon opened up the possibility of wireless controllers in what were now becoming the first major upgrades to the nature of the console controller as a piece of hardware. For the first time, it was no longer just a question of how to mould plastic and arrange buttons.

Whereas previously, mobile phone design had borrowed features from the console controller (such as the small joystick type navigator or the idea of vibration feedback, first seen on Sony’s Dualshock Playstation pads in 1997), now the development seemed a lot more parallel. So just as Nintendo was revolutionising the hardware of console interfacing by putting a gyroscope and an accelerometer in its Wii controllers, so too Steve Jobs and Apple were doing the same with their iPhone smartphone device.

A few more years down the line and we have reached a, perhaps inevitable, ‘first’. The Nintendo Wii U represents the first time that a technology which has been thoroughly established and introduced in the area of smartphones has been ported over to console hardware design – by virtue of the Wii U integration of a touchscreen into its controller. Even if we consider semi-touchscreen devices such as the Nintendo DS (which is not a traditional home console anyway), we would simply conclude that this ‘first’ already happened a few years ago.

In any case, it is clear that the introduction of the touchscreen to the hardware of video game user interfacing is a change led all the way by smartphone innovation and design. Indeed this is hardly surprising – smartphone innovation represents an even faster moving technology these days than video game console design – and actually provides a very useful testing ground for gaming design at both software and hardware levels. Thanks to our familiarity with touchscreens in both general smartphone use – and specifically smartphone gaming – this is not an alien new feature which some people won’t understand.

Likewise developers have already gained extensive experience in designing and programming for smartphone games and so should be much better positioned to maximise the potential of the Wii U’s innovative new feature than might have been the case previously with some earlier innovations that confused production studios.

The ultimate conclusion is that this certainly won’t be the last instance of smartphone innovation pointing the way forward for console controller design. While the traditional questions of moulding plastic and arranging buttons have never gone away – there is now increasingly more emphasis on what is under the hood and that aspect will more and more be defined by where out smartphones go in coming years.

(One personal prediction of mine for example is that we’ll soon see Siri-like voice commands integrated into gameplay with the aid of on-board microphones in the controller. Feel free to add your own below!)