Nintendo's Wii U video game console is barely competing. It has some great games and a unique controller, but it's lacking in horsepower and content compared to the competition. Thankfully for Nintendo, the company has another massively successful product on the market right now: amiibo.
They're basically toy figures, albeit with some light in-game applications. Touch one to your Wii U gamepad and suddenly you've unlocked some content in whatever game you're playing, or you've added in a new character, or a variety of other potential outcomes.
They're an ingenious combination of toy and digital product, and they sell very, very well. It's almost enough to make up for the Wii U's inability to catch on with mainstream consumers! Almost.
They are, however, enough of a phenomenon that Microsoft is apparently interested in aping Nintendo's success.
A patent filing from Microsoft published on September 17 shows a distinctly amiibo-like device that's intended for use with "computer games." Here's the brief background section of the patent:
There are many ways that a user can interact with a computer game and typically a user controls the game via a keyboard and mouse, games controller (which may be handheld or detect body movement) or touch screen, dependent upon the platform on which the game is being played (e.g. computer, games console or handheld device). A number of games have also been developed in which gameplay is enabled (or unlocked) through the use of physical character toys which are placed on a custom base connected to a games console. By placing different toys on the custom base, different gameplay is enabled.
That sounds an awful lot like how amiibo work. It also sounds distinctly like Activision's "Skylanders" franchise, which popularized the "toys-to-life" concept. It is now in its fifth iteration, with each new game released annually — it's made publisher Activision millions of dollars.
MICROSOFT TECHNOLOGY LICENSING, LLCMicrosoft's version of this concept takes a distinct turn in execution, though. Rather than a toy figure, Microsoft's patent describes something called "interactive smart beads" — a form of wearable device.
Again, here's how Microsoft describes it:
A fashion item is described below which comprises two or more smart beads on a connecting element (e.g. a bracelet). A user (who may alternatively be referred to as a wearer) can add, remove and re-arrange the beads on the connecting element. Each smart bead is arranged to store both an ID for the bead and data relating to the bead (i.e. within a storage element in the bead).
The patent details a bracelet that remembers your history of use and interacts with whatever it's communicating with: a computer, a games console, and/or a mobile device.
It sounds like a sort of hybrid amiibo/fashion item, with uses beyond just gaming. But given its nature as a patent, it's totally possible that Microsoft's "interactive smart beads" may be little more than the dream of a team at Microsoft's tech licensing department.