Monday, April 06, 2009

Touchscreen evolution


Of all our culture's instantly recognizable iconography, I have a particular affection for the "Descent of Man" silhouettes... ever since I was a wee nerdling poring through the leatherette-bound wonders of the World Book, I've loved that progression from simian Common Ancestor, up through the goblinoid australopithecine and the spear-toting Neanderthal, to modern Homo sapiens, who sometimes comes complete with fedora and briefcase, a proudly striding Adonis commuting into the Future. I mean, it's all right there, millions of years of Evolution as Nagging Mother: "Stand up straight!"

The reason I'm thinking about that image is that I recently got hold of the new Nintendo DSi and tried to visualize a similar display of the evolution of the DS, and came out of the exercise pretty disappointed; there's just not much that's visually compelling about a parade of slightly different rectangles. Yet the DS has evolved greatly in the last four and a half years, from 2004's clunky prototype in that grody industrial shade of semi-metallic plastic that always reminds me of the grey stuff on lotto scratch tickets to the sleek matte-black machine of today. More importantly, the DS has evolved in full view of the world; rather than hide its product development and refinement away in an R&D lab, Nintendo has made it a lucrative public process, turning each transitional form into a must-have gizmo, racking up unit sales of ninety-seven million worldwide along the way.

Like the DS Lite before it (like, not even three years ago), the DSi is "what the DS was meant to be." All cynicism aside, it is a pretty sweet little piece of hardware. Two VGA-resolution cameras, one on the case for taking snapshots and one inside the hinge for displaying your gross, pasty, dough-necked, eye-bagged, old-man "game face." Slightly bigger screens, improved wi-fi, more RAM, onboard storage an SD card slot and a goddamned volume control that doesn't constantly piss you off, all packed into a 12-per-cent slimmer case, thanks to the elimination of Game Boy Advance compatibility and the chubby little cartridge slot it required. That's a bit of a bittersweet loss. One the one hand, adieu to Pokemon FireRed and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance; on the other, no more wasting time and tears pawing hopefully through the bargain bins at Blockbuster Video only to come up with five copies of Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus and an empty Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 box.

Not that the DSi isn't going to offer me many, many opportunities to waste my money. With the introduction of downloadable games and applications through the DSi Shop, I'm sure we'll soon see a repeat of what happened with WiiWare and Virtual Console on the Wii: the onboard memory clogging up with impulse-purchased titles I fiddled with for a few minutes each before consigning them to gather digital dust in the virtual closet. Right now, though, in these early-adopter times, its pretty slim pickings in the DSi shop; with my 1000 Nintendo-point "welcoming gift" warming, if not burning a hole through, my pocket, I went shopping only to find myself sorely untempted by yet another WarioWare game and something called "Birds and Beans". The Opera web browser was free, though, and I'm happy to report that the DSi, like its predecessor, offers excellent on-the-go pornography support wherever there's washroom wi-fi. I recommend the Wii-optimized FriiPorn.com.

The coolest -- or maybe "neatest" -- thing about the DSi is its standard suite of multimedia toys. Novelty wears off quickly, we know, but when the novelty is laid down in multiple coats like this you can get a surprisingly hard-wearing and durable finish. The fun little photo editor offers lots of weird filters and lenses and stuff, including a cheesy but cheerful face-blending utility and a touchscreen distortion tool that's way more giggle-inducing than it ought to be -- goodbye, fatneck, hello giant Mexican waif-painting eyes! On audio side, the DSi supports AAC audio (no MP3 [frowny face]) and again there's a whole toybox of gimmicks to play with: loopers, beat machines, voice-changers, that sort of thing. "A momentary diversion on the road to the grave," as the man says, but a playful, enjoyable one.

Nintendo's motives with the DSi aren't all play-based, though; they're explicitly angling the thing toward a position as a sort of light productivity device. Already in Japan the DS is used by millions as a phrase book, subway map, weight-loss coach and cookbook, and the hope is that North Americans and Europeans will start to catch on to the idea and the DSi will hack out a chunk of the iPhone's mojo. Personally, I think I'm sold on the idea; of all the upcoming DSi titles I've seen, it's the non-game products -- 20 Classic Book Collection and Moving Notepad -- that have me most excited. Now that the DS has downloading and storage capacity, it's got a lot of potential as a general-purpose portable platform. I hope it lives up to it; I'd like to be able to step to those showoff iPhone motherfuckers with a taste of touchscreen evolution.

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