The surprising (mundane) tech behind the Wii U's magical GamePad

The most magical element of Nintendo's new Wii U console is powered by a relatively mundane piece of technology.

Second-screen gaming, the ability to view full maps, menus or even play an entire game on the 6-inch screen built into the WIi U's GamePad, is made possible by a special form of Wi-Fi.

The technology, co-developed by Nintendo and wireless and broadband communications giant Broadcom, marries run-of-the-mill Wi-Fi with a powerful bit of proprietary software to create a two-way stream of low-latency, high-definition video and controls between the Wii U and its innovative GamePad.

That complex suite of software is designed to mitigate interference and deliver a smooth video signal and communication speeds, said Dino Bekis, senior director of wireless connectivity at Broadcom.

The technology is built on top of something called Wi-Fi Miracast, which Broadcom first developed last summer. It's a system that is specifically designed to deal with interference issues while maintaining liquid fast two-way communication.

Broadcom and Nintendo then teamed up to create a more solid system for the Wii U-to-GamePad connection.

"It has very low-latency, very high-definition quality, all coupled with solid interference mitigation technology," Bekis said. "What we did with Nintendo is very much targeted at their platform. The foundation, or the building blocks of the technology, is the constant of 'How do I deliver low-latency, high-quality video from one endpoint to the other over varying conditions with a lot of potential interference and non-line-of-sight issues?'"

While the official specs for the Wii U's GamePad say that it will operate properly at a distance between 8 inches and a bit more than 26 feet from the console, Polygon found that we could get quite a bit more out of the connection. And setups in rural locations could nearly quadruple that distance.

Pawling, a town of 8,400 nestled in upstate New York's Hudson Valley, is a haven free of many interfering radio frequencies. Residents of the town struggle to get cell phone service and FM or AM radio broadcasts. The low population also means there's not a very high density of radio frequencies in the area.

That's bad for making cell phone calls, but great for extending the usefulness of the Wii U's GamePad.

In Pawling, we found that you could use the GamePad well outside the 26-foot recommended range of the device.

It worked in adjoining bedrooms and bathrooms, outside, in an office, upstairs, at a distant kitchen table and even in the boiler room amid furnaces and massive oil drums.

Placed outside, we were able to play New Super Mario Bros. U on the GamePad's screen while sitting at nearly twice the recommended range from the television.

Bekis wasn't surprised to hear that we were able to greatly extend the range of the device in frequency-quiet areas.

Tests in the lab were able to maintain connections between the Wii U and the GamePad at more than 100 feet, he said.

So why does Nintendo say it only reaches 26 feet?

Essentially, the game maker wanted to include a worst-case scenario for users of the Wii U.

"They have to make sure that it will operate in all of these different environments," Bekis said. "If you're in an environment that has a lot of different [Wi-Fi routers] running simultaneously or other interference, you won't get the same range."

So Nintendo created a range that their studies showed would reflect the experience of "99.9 percent of all users," he said. "We've done many multiples of [Nintendo's suggested range], but Nintendo's perspective is that they want to guarantee a flawless user experience."

And it's possible that even that longer range could be extended.

While Bekis was clear that Nintendo hasn't talked about the idea of using repeaters or range extenders with the Wii U and GamePad, he did say that the technology supports their use.

"I don't think this has been something that has been discussed in a lot of detail," he said. "But the technology would allow it."

The Wii U is using a special form of 802.11n Wi-Fi that could include a few neat surprises.

The only issue that would have to be dealt with, and Bekis said it's absolutely fixable, is any latency that a repeater might add to the system.

With such a system, a GamePad could be used anywhere in the home.

Bekis also confirmed that the system can support two GamePads connected to the same system at once.

"There is nothing that would prevent that from working," he said.

The tech would even theoretically support extending the GamePad's use well outside the house, say to a local Starbucks, through Wi-Fi.

"Currently the Wi-Fi connection is peer-to-peer-based and using the GamePad outside the home would require a networked connection to the console; this is something that is a possibility for the future but is not in place today," Bekis said.

Broadcom also is responsible for the Wii U's tech for connecting to the internet, its use of Bluetooth and even the NFC functions that Nintendo has been strangely quiet about.

Near-Field Communication is a technology that would allow the Wii U's GamePad to communicate with something that has a special chip built into it.

While support for the tech has not been officially announced for the game, a leaked internal demo video for Rayman Legends showed the technology being used to bring characters into the game by placing toys on the console's GamePad. The effect appeared to be similar to what Activision's Skylanders uses.

Bekis said he expects Nintendo plans to announce more details about the tech's use after the console's launch.

"Nintendo has been relatively quiet about that," he said. "NFC has been a part of the system, but I think that it's a 'watch this space' kind of topic," he said. "I don't know what they will dream up, with respect to using that technology. I can see a lot of opportunities for them to take advantage of it. I think that's an area that still has to be fleshed out."

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