updated 04:35 pm EST, Sun January 9, 2011
We look at Razer's Hydra and Switchblade at CES
Razer had an unusually strong presence at CES this year and brought two big devices: its Hydra motion controller for computers and its Switchblade handheld PC, both of which we saw first-hand at the show. The Hydra was the truly functional example and impressed us with a specially optimized version of Valve's Portal 2. The new version had a handful of new objects and puzzles designed around the controller's dual motion, dual analog stick setup.
In practice, the Hydra's new mechanics fit perfectly into the game's universe and were a good showcase of what could be done. On a simple level, you could grab a mirror box and use it to bounce lasers and use them to wipe out sentry guns that were too dangerous to attack head-on: you can use the controllers to distance or spin around an object with the portal gun rather than just shoot. Valve even added stretchable boxes that could be used to help block objects or scale obstacles.
We learned that the system was relatively flexible compared to some motion controllers. Razer's system can turn down the sensitivity for games that need precision over speed. The need for fast bandwidth does limit the range to 12 feet for the wireless version, but we suspect few users will intend to step far away from the computer. A wired version will be available for those worried about wireless lag.
Our main concern is simply software support. Motion control on consoles, such as the PlayStation Move and Kinect, can assume they'll easily attract developers due to help from Microsoft and Sony. Windows game designers are historically slow to add device-specific support, and Razer hasn't yet obtained much more support than from Valve. It's a major leap forward for some games, but it could be ignored if treated like just another peripheral.
The Hydra should ship in the near future for less than $100.
Switchblade was intriguing, but it was behind a glass box at CES and thus left us mostly to see it as a concept. Although Razer itself won't make a production version, its reference hardware was clearly inspired by the dynamic, LCD-lit keys from devices like the Optimus Popularis with its look and dynamic, context-aware keys. Quake 3 Arena used the first-person shooter's weapon ions, while World of Goo's reliance on the touchscreen let it go to just a minimal set of keys. Non-game apps like media players should also get awareness.
We weren't given any release details, since the Switchblade is just an example for other companies to build upon. We also wonder how much gaming it can handle: the Atom Z670 in the Switchblade has much improved graphics and can handle some 3D action games well, but there's an inevitable ceiling when not using dedicated video. Still, it's a rare instance of trying to make Windows gaming mobile.