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June 9, 2011 11:12 AM

E3: Nintendo's Iwata on Wii U video services, iPad competition

Posted by Brier Dudley

Here's the full version of my Wii U story that includes material from an interview with Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. Among the topics we discussed were streaming video to the Wii U controller and competition with the iPad and other tablets.

LOS ANGELES -- Five years after its motion-controlled Wii changed the way people play video games, getting them to move arms and bodies, as well as fingers, Nintendo on Tuesday revealed another radically different console that it will begin selling next year.

Called the Wii U, the system is based on a souped-up version of the Wii that outputs high-definition video and runs the ultrarealistic action games that dominate the industry but are subpar on the lower-definition Wii.

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The new system's highlight is a control pad that looks somewhat like a tablet computer crossbred with a Nintendo handheld game player.

Wii buttons on the controller flank a 6-inch diagonal color touch-screen that mirrors -- or extends -- what's displayed on the TV screen.

The controller can be thought of as a gaming pad that someone can play with on the couch while another person is watching the TV, similar to the way people use the iPad to browse or play casual games while others are watching a show or movie.

Games can be played entirely on the controller, including board games when it's set on a table, or it can be used as a traditional controller with games played on a TV set. As a controller, it can be used to aim pitches in baseball games, or set on the floor to work as a golf tee. The device can also be used to make video calls and as a drawing tablet, when used with a stylus.

"Up until now home console games had to occupy the TV screen to be played," Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said during the unveiling at the Nokia Theatre at the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3). "You won't need to give up your game play when someone else comes into the room and wants to watch a TV program."

The console's name is a play on the word "you," Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Redmond-based Nintendo of America, explained during the Nokia Theatre unveiling. He teased that it's "unique, unifying, maybe even Utopian."

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"We want to create a strong bond between games, your TV and the Internet and also similarly between you, your friends and your family, all interacting in the same room," he said.

Nintendo designed the console to work with one of the touch-screen controllers and up to four of the current Wii Remote motion controllers, guaranteeing a million hours of bickering over who gets to use the big remote. The system also is compatible with current Wii games and accessories, including its hugely popular Balance Board fitness system.

Front and rear cameras on the new controller enable it to run "augmented reality" games that Nintendo began selling earlier this year for its 3DS handheld gaming device. Such games use cameras to place an image of the player into the game and incorporate the space around the device into the game's landscape. On the screen, it may appear that you're shooting arrows at a cartoon version of your head as it bobs around the room, which itself appears to sustain damage from the action.

But mind-bending new games are only part of Nintendo's goal with the new system, with which it hopes to leap ahead of the next generation of game consoles that will arrive over the next four years.

Nintendo executives said they hope the system bridges the gap between casual games that are the current Wii's strong suit and hard-core games, which are most popular on Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3. A parade of game publishers announced Tuesday that they'll produce Wii U versions of blockbuster franchises such as EA's "Battlefield" and Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed."

Electronic Arts Chief Executive John Riccitiello came on stage during Nintendo's media event and called the Wii U a "stunning breakthrough in game technology."

Nintendo also needed a system with 1080p video output to keep pace with video services on the Sony and Microsoft consoles. They have positioned the Xbox and PS3 as entertainment gateways that connect TV sets to online video services and, now, live TV broadcasts.

Although Nintendo hasn't yet announced video services for its new console, Iwata said during an interview that the Wii U has an advantage because the controller can be used as an auxiliary TV display, so you can carry it into the kitchen, for instance, and continue watching a movie or show on its screen.

Iwata also said the touch-screen works well for searching and selecting content, suggesting that it will function as a sort of super remote control for streaming-video services.

"That is going to be more convenient for you in comparison with how you have to do that with your TV set," he said.

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Although the controller can be used in similar ways to an iPad or other tablet -- as a device to entertain on the couch while the TV is on -- Iwata said Nintendo isn't chasing tablets with the controller.

"First of all, when we first thought about the possibility of adding a second screen with a new controller there was no talk about tablets at all. We have never thought about a tablet as a kind of competition," he said.

"But I think that we can take that as an advantage because today most of the people understand how to take advantage of the tablet in their life," he added. "Without it probably we would have a hard a hard time explaining how you can change your daily lives having such kind of things, with a controller with a screen."

Iwata declined to give details about pricing or the release date, but said the Wii U will go on sale sometime between April 1 and Dec. 31 -- after Nintendo's fiscal year ends in March.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.