As you may recall, in March of this year the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California upheld a previous judgment to penalize Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. and Sony Computer Entertainment of America, Inc. $82 million in damages for patent infringement. With pre-judgment interest added on to that, the total award is about $92 million, and Sony was also issued an injunction that would prevent them from building, shipping and selling their Dual Shock controllers, which contain the force feedback functions that apparently infringe on Immersion's patents.
Pending Sony's appeal, the judge has stayed the injunction, but Sony is still paying a compulsory license fee each quarter to Immersion—Immersion is hopeful that the appeal will be decided upon in their favor by the end of this year. With that in mind, many in the industry have found it quite curious that Sony's newly announced motion-sensing PS3 controller contains no rumble functionality. According to an SCEA rep contacted by GameDaily BIZ, Sony maintains that "the new PS3 controller uses six axis motion sensors to move with the user's body; because of this sensitivity it can't use vibration."
We spoke with Immersion CEO Vic Viegas to get his take on the PS3 controller and what could happen next with the lawsuit. "When the appeal is completed, and if we win, then there will be an injunction and they will not be allowed to sell their products unless they have a license from Immersion. So this is a very high stakes game that they're playing... Clearly, with the lawsuit there's a serious risk that if they were to lose the appeal our injunction could be applied to the PS3 and they would not be able to sell the PS3 if it was found to be an infringing product," said Viegas.
Could it be that Sony, fearing it may lose its appeal, decided it would be too risky to include rumble in the PS3 controller? No one knows for sure, but Immersion is certain that technologically rumble could be included alongside motion-sensing. Not only does Nintendo's motion-sensing Wii-mote include vibration, but Dylan Jobe (who demonstrated Warhawk at Sony's media briefing) made a very interesting comment to IGN in a video interview. As the video approaches the 6 minute mark, Jobe says something like, "...the batteries are great, the rumble is great, the sensors are great." Did Jobe just make a mistake, or did he actually slip up and reveal that his model of the PS3 controller did in fact utilize a rumble feature?
If Sony truly is having trouble successfully integrating vibration alongside motion-sensing technology, Immersion said that it would like to help. "Immersion would be happy to step in and solve their problem," Viegas told GameDaily BIZ. "If it truly is a conflict between vibration and motion sensing, we have some of the world's experts in the field of haptic technology or force feedback... and we already have three ways we know how to solve the problem, but we're not willing to work with them until we've resolved this long, simmering legal battle. So if this is really a technical hurdle, we're confident that we can solve this through filtering techniques, through processing techniques and through hardware modifications."
Whether a legal battle or a technical hurdle is getting in the way, it's hard to believe that a company like Sony would remove vibration from its controller, a feature that has truly come to be expected in just about any modern console controller. Apparently, the secret was so well guarded at Sony that even some of the most respected developers for Sony's platform were surprised to hear about the lack of vibration. In a video interview on GameSpot with Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, who is working on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for PS3, Kojima noted (past the 5 minute mark) that he was "very upset and sad" at the removal of rumble from PS3.
"[Sony] may be forced into adding vibration back if the game developers and the gamers completely throw up their arms and say, 'This is not an interactive experience, especially at $599,'" Viegas continued.
Viegas also pointed to a couple of peculiar comments by Sony. "There have been Sony executives who have been quoted as saying that it would be possible to have third-party peripherals provide vibration... Why would a third-party be able to solve this technical problem?" he queried. "They also say that the lack of vibration today doesn't necessarily mean that that's their long-term strategy, so they have somewhat hedged their bets I think in the face of this strong criticism from the industry."
Of course, if Sony did look to a third-party to provide a pad with vibration, that company would likely be a licensee of Immersion anyway—Immersion has more than 20 licensees in the game industry. And why would Sony want to steer business away from their first-party product and towards third-party controllers? It simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Viegas added, "It's interesting that the PS3 controller, if you felt it, it feels extremely light, flimsy almost. There's a lack of substance to what is an expensive product and there's a cavity in the handles that would actually accommodate two rotating mass motors. So it's possible that at the last minute they were taken out; it's possible that they could easily be added back in."
He continued, "If you look at the top 3 console suppliers, 2 of the 3 provide vibration as part of their gaming experience. Nintendo was obviously able to resolve the motion sensing and the vibration problem... and Microsoft has vibration, which is a key aspect of the gaming experience. [For Sony] to have made this decision I think is really taking a big risk with their product line, and it may be just the arrogance, that they've been in this space for so long that they feel they can raise prices indiscriminately, they can eliminate features by a stroke of their hand without any feedback from game developers..."
So what's next for Sony? Is vibration still a possibility for the PS3 controller? "Absolutely," said Viegas. "I think that they could either on their own solve their problem and decide to add vibration back in—they do run the risk of an injunction right at the same time they're launching a new product—or they could work with Immersion to help solve the problem and settle the lawsuit. We've always been very interested in working with them not only to resolve our legal differences but also to work with them to enhance their products. For example, we have what we believe to be a much better next-generation gaming technology that is more crisp and precise, would be less expensive to implement and we'd be happy to share that with them. In fact, we demonstrated the capability to them and they were quite impressed, but the lawsuit seems to be in the way."
"Vibration adds that third dimension—sight, sound and touch. Without touch... it's like playing in the closet with the lights off; there's no feedback, takes completely away from the gameplay," he concluded.