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Nintendo Releases NFC-Enabled Wii U; Broadcom Supplies NFC Chip

Nintendo has released its much-anticipated Wii U gaming console with NFC technology, enabling the game maker to incorporate physical objects into game play, in addition to possible support in the future for contactless payment for digital content.

In January, the Japanese video game maker announced that Wii U would incorporate NFC functionality. Nintendo’s Wii U system was released Sunday to coincide with the start of the holiday shopping season. The release makes Nintendo the first major console maker to adopt NFC. 

The device carries an NFC chip from U.S.-based Broadcom, which also supplies Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology for the Wii U. The console uses Broadcom’s BCM20792 NFC controller.

Monday’s announcement from Broadcom of the chip supply for the Wii U came just a few days after the semiconductor supplier revealed that Google had selected its NFC software stack for the search giant’s latest version of its mobile operating system, Android 4.2. And Google’s new Nexus 4 smartphone and Nexus 10 tablet, both running Android 4.2, use Broadcom’s BCM20793 NFC chip, part of the same BCM2079x series as the chip in Wii U. 

The move by Google is likely to eventually oust Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors, whose NFC software stack has run in previous NFC-enabled Android versions, from its place as the dominant NFC supplier for Android devices. NFC chip market expert Mark Hung, wireless research director of U.S.-based consulting firm Gartner, described the software stack change as “probably the most significant development in the NFC market since Google first decided to incorporate NFC in the Nexus S back in 2010.” 

But NXP contends it will also supply devices running Android 4.2, with its PN65 NFC chip and secure element combination appearing in Google’s previously announced 7-inch tablet, the Nexus 7. And the first device makers introducing phones running Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 operating system, Nokia, Samsung and HTC, are also using an NFC stack from NXP.

Microsoft, however, said it is working with other stack suppliers, as well. And more and more Android device makers are expected to line up a second NFC chip supplier for their phones and tablets.

Wii U’s GamePad controller features a 6.2 inch touch screen along with the pair of analog sticks and control buttons of traditional video game controllers. For certain Wii U titles, such as Super Mario Bros. U, players can move the game display from the television to the touch screen to watch television while playing. NFC might one day play a role in this functionality, with Broadcom noting that its NFC chip offers “simplified pairing” and wireless interaction with other game peripherals. This is a feature of NFC chips from other chip makers, as well.

Such interaction also could include the integration of real-world objects into virtual game worlds. Mohamed Awad, associate product line director at Broadcom, called this kind of user experience “the Holy Grail of video games” in a blog post Monday.  In Nintendo’s Jan. 27 announcement, company president Satoru Iwata referred to “cards and figurines that can electronically read and write data via noncontact NFC.” 

Awad, however, noted that “Nintendo has yet to reveal specific plans for NFC.” And there is no word yet on NFC-enabled accessories.

Activision’s popular Skylanders game currently incorporates NFC-enabled toys. Each Skylanders figurine has an NFC chip in its base, and when placed on an NFC reader platform, dubbed the “Portal of Power,” code stored on the chip brings an animated version of the figurine into the game as a playable character.

Much of the attention on NFC has focused on contactless payment, and Nintendo’s Iwata, in an operational briefing last January, specifically mentioned that Wii U’s NFC capability could include “a means of making micropayments,” likely as a part of the newly-introduced Nintendo Network.

Designed to compete with rival Microsoft’s Xbox Live, the Nintendo Network would allow users to communicate and compete on their consoles through an online connection.  It also gives Nintendo a venue to sell in-game items and software such as downloadable expansion content for video games.  Any plans for NFC payment on the Wii U remain unclear, but it could offer players the ability one day to tap the console or GamePad with cards or a smartphone to pay for such content.

Incorporating NFC into the Wii U may be an effort to compete with the growing popularity of mobile gaming. Nintendo posted a loss for the fiscal year ending in March 2012, which Iwata called the company’s worst performance since its entry into the gaming industry. The company may be seeking an edge with NFC technology.

 

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