Nintendo’s New Console Will Change How You Watch Television

The Wii U may not transform gaming, but it will revolutionize the boob tube.

A Wii U console and Wii U’s tablet-like touchscreen controller.

The new Wii U console and Wii U’s tablet-like touchscreen controller.

Courtesy Nintendo.

Nintendo’s Wii U is better than its enormously popular predecessor in all the expected ways. The new console, which comes out on Sunday, has more processing power and prettier graphics than the six-year-old Wii. But what’s most noteworthy about the Wii U is its new controller. The Wii U GamePad combines the buttons and motion sensors of the original Wiimote with an iPad-like touch screen equipped with a microphone and a camera. This will allow kids to play a hi-def Mario game on the tablet while their parents watch something else on the TV. It also enables new types of gameplay. The gory horror game ZombiU, for instance, uses the tablet as an overhead map, a keypad for electronic doors, an inventory screen for juggling weapons and tools, a crosshairs view when you’re using a rifle, and even an augmented reality display. Hold it up in front of the TV, and it seems to scan the virtual environment and reveal previously hidden items.

Will the Wii U and its new controller change the way people play games? Possibly. Will the Wii U achieve the same level of success that the original Wii did (nearly 100 million consoles sold)? Probably not. It costs more ($300 for a basic version and $350 for a more full-featured version as compared with $250 for the original Wii) and, as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote last year, Nintendo is now struggling to compete with the iPhone and iPad as well as rival consoles. But I am confident enough to make one big prediction: The Wii U will revolutionize the way we watch television.

I must confess that I haven’t seen the TV functionalities of the console in action. (Almost no one outside of Nintendo has—those features have not yet been turned on in the early Wii U units that have gone out to reviewers.) And when the TV functions do launch, you can expect the initial version to be incomplete and buggy. But I’m still going to pull a Nate Silver and bet you 1,000 1-Up mushrooms that the Wii U will push multiscreen viewing to dizzying new heights of input overload.

The most detailed look at Nintendo’s TV plans came at an event in New York this September. Amid demos of various new games, Nintendo of America’s Zach Fountain showed off a service called Nintendo TVii. (That’s pronounced “TeeVee,” meaning that it, er, sounds exactly the same as TV.) At the most basic level, TVii turns the Wii U’s GamePad into an interactive guide to all of your streaming and subscription viewing services. Tap the 6.2-inch tablet to search for shows across Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, YouTube, your DVR, and your cable provider. You can get suggestions based on your viewing preferences, set it to record shows, or jump in and start watching whatever is available.

As you watch, you can use the GamePad to post screen captures and comments to Facebook, Twitter, or Nintendo’s social network, called Miiverse. (I know, I know.) Nintendo is also promising features like live polls and has started partnering with broadcasters to, for example, provide a stream of scores and stats on the GamePad as you watch college football on Saturday afternoon.

Nintendo isn’t the only company to realize that more people are watching TV with a second screen close by. Shows ranging from The Mentalist to American Idol have started helpfully suggesting hashtags that you should use to live-tweet your viewing experience. And if Twitter and Facebook aren’t TV-centric enough for you, there are a myriad of “social TV” apps that are vying to host your real-time oversharing. Meanwhile, apps like Shazam allow you to hold your phone up to your TV to identify a show based on the audio, then connect you to additional content about the show.

By combining all of these features with a fancy touch-screen remote control, the Wii U may be the best multiscreen viewing device yet invented. Even more important, it will serve as an accessible entry point for millions of people who can’t wrap their heads around today’s confusing array of video-on-demand services.

People have long used game consoles to ease into new kinds of media. The fact that the PlayStation 2 could play DVDs won over many people who didn’t realize they wanted higher-def movies. It was a symbiotic relationship—DVDs helped Sony sell north of 150 million PS2s, and the huge success of the console helped the medium gain traction, ensuring that it didn’t go the way of the Laserdisc.

The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have gone well beyond the PS2 in terms of non-game functionality. In addition to playing physical media—Blu-ray discs in the case of the PS3—both Sony and Microsoft have set up online stores to sell or rent downloadable video content to gamers. The current generation of consoles and streaming services have developed the same sort of symbiotic relationship as the PS2 did with DVD makers. People who could never be bothered to buy and configure a standalone streaming box like the Roku now have Web-enabled game consoles connected to their TVs. According to Microsoft, nearly half of the Americans who have Xbox 360’s premium online service consume at least 30 hours of TV shows and movies through the device every month. I am one of them. I spend more time watching Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and HBOGO on my 360 than I do playing games.

Nintendo long resisted this approach—its competitors were vast conglomerates, while it simply wanted to be a game company. Though its game discs use the same sort of spinning optical drive that DVDs require, the Wii does not play DVDs. But as streaming video became more popular, Nintendo relented, joining Microsoft and Sony in letting customers add services like Netflix and Hulu to their consoles. Even so, the Xbox 360’s video features are far more robust than those available on the Wii—a major reason why Microsoft’s console has been selling much better than the Wii for the last two years.

After being late to embrace multimedia with the Wii, Nintendo has gone for it wholeheartedly with the Wii U. The promise of unifying all of your media devices and manipulating them from a touch screen may even appeal to people who have zero interest in games. Microsoft has moved in this direction as well, recently launching a clever app called SmartGlass, which turns almost any tablet or smartphone into a touch-screen remote for the Xbox 360, and it promises a range of services similar to what Nintendo will offer. But, unlike with the Wii U, there’s no promise of connecting to your DVR or live TV. Nintendo, after all these years, is finally ahead of its rivals. Now the question is whether it can stay there.