E3 2015: Could peripherals define the current generation of console gaming?

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From AR to VR, hardware makers are looking for ways to augment our gaming experiences

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While we've come to expect a host of new and exciting games from E3, this year saw focus shift a little. The big, glossy new games were still there, but certain companies, Microsoft in particular, offered a second focus – one of augmenting the gaming experience with meaningful peripherals.

What made Microsoft's E3 offering stand out from the crowd at this year's show wasn't a host of exclusive games (though it didn't slouch in that regard), but a focus on augmenting the gaming experience.

On a basic level, this came in the announcement of a new high-end gamepad – the Xbox Elite Controller. The controller provides removable and mappable controllers, as well as a set of new paddle buttons and hair-trigger locks. It's aimed squarely at pro gamers, and could well significantly enhance the Xbox One experience for those users.

Digging deeper, Microsoft also took the opportunity at E3 to showcase its Hololens augmented reality headset. Revealed back in January, the headset is an ambitious Windows 10 tie-in that projects virtual objects into the user's immediate environment.

The company showed the tech working with a specially designed version of Minecraft, with the Hololens equipped-player interacting with a tabletop world using both his voice and hand gestures. There's no word yet on when the headset will land (Microsoft says it'll arrive within the Windows 10 timeframe), but it could find a home in Xbox One gaming. We can see it being great for strategy and city builder type titles, providing an interesting mix between modern gaming and traditional tabletop boardgames.

Project Morpheus could rule the VR roost

While we might not have seen much of Sony's made-for-PS4 virtual reality headset at E3 this year, it's certain to be a big draw for the system when it eventually lands (it's currently expected some time in 2016).

Gizmag went hands-on with the headset on the E3 show floor, and while the limited demo didn't really give a taste of how the peripheral could change PS4 gaming, we did find it to be a promising piece of kit. For one, Sony has managed to limit the infamous screen door effect (visible pixels), despite the so-so 1080p resolution on offer.

The fact that Project Morpheus is built specifically for the PS4 makes it one of the most compelling virtual reality offerings on the horizon. Want to use Oculus Rift when it launches in Q1 2016? You'll need a pretty beefy PC rig, with an Nvidia GTX 970 level GPU, to hit the recommended specs. On the other hand, all you'll need to use Project Morpheus is a standard PlayStation 4. It's a simple, accessible solution, and one that could well make Sony the biggest player in virtual reality.

Oculus Rift and the Xbox One

Turning back to the Xbox One, Microsoft has another trick up its sleeve, this time in the virtual reality space. A big feature of the upcoming Windows 10 release is the ability to stream Xbox One games to a PC running the OS. But the company recently announced that you'll also be able to use an Oculus Rift headset with Xbox One, simply by passing it through a Windows 10 machine.

That solution might not be quite as elegant as Sony's made-for-PS4 offering, and we can't yet know just how well it will work. That said, it could provide Xbox One users with an easy way to get their VR fix.

Classic territory for Nintendo?

When it comes to virtual or augmented reality, no-one is talking about Nintendo. Considering that the company has made waves augmenting the gaming experience over the last decade – first with motion controls on the Wii, and then (less successfully) with second screen experiences on the Wii U – it seems a little strange that it's not interested in the movement.

Perhaps the company's unsuccessful attempt at bringing virtual reality gaming to the masses in the 90s – the Virtual Boy – left a bitter taste in the mouth. On the other hand, perhaps the Wii U's lack of horsepower is the reason.

Of course, with the spectre of Nintendo's next console – codenamed NX – lurking on the horizon, maybe the company will have another go at VR. Hell, it could even take a stab at AR. It's definitely unlikely, but we can dream.

Overall, this year's E3 saw a bigger focus on augmenting traditional gaming experiences than ever before. Microsoft sweetened the deal for pro gamers with the Elite Controller, and provided a glimpse at an AR future with the Hololens. Elsewhere, from Oculus Rift to Project Morpheus to the surprisingly impressive StarVR headset, virtual reality had a big presence on the show floor.

Many of the biggest companies in the industry are seeing the importance of offering new and exciting experiences to users. One thing's for sure – it's a good time to love games.

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