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March 6, 2008
GDC 2008 - Zeemote JS1

By Paul Philleo

A lot of interesting gadgets in the game industry fall by the wayside, because they were ahead of their time or they were ill-conceived. The old N-Gage, Virtual Boy and 3DO game systems come to mind, but they have a large number of brethren who fell into the historical dust faster than they did.

One such device that has a good chance of avoiding that particular fate is Zeemote’s JS1, a thumbstick Bluetooth-connected controller for mobile devices. Beth Marcus, the CEO of Bedford, Massachusetts-based Zeemote, introduced me to her product a little bit more in-depth at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The JS1 is definitely a lightweight gadget, under 2 ounces according to Zeemote’s own documentation. The body of the device fits well in the palm and makes it easy to position a thumb over the thumbstick and main trigger button. The four trigger buttons at the top of the JS1 can be assigned particular functions, but I didn’t have a chance to really test drive those buttons in action. However, it would seem that anyone who can manage the top shoulder buttons on a modern console controller should be able to manage those as their primary buttons in a mobile game.

Taking it to the proverbial streets, I tried out the JS1 on a Nokia handset playing the basic but cleanly 3D-rendered aerial shooting/bombing game, Helistrike 3D by Fishlabs. The control for the game only required use of the analog thumbstick and one button, but using that control I was able to breeze through the first level without incurring damage to my chopper. For most adults and anyone with larger hands, it becomes quickly obvious that most mobile devices and their gaming control schemes are designed for the hands of toddlers with the finger agility of a thumb wrestler. Not having the gift of either when it comes to playing mobile games, I’ve often found myself in near death situations in minutes – or seconds. Not this time, however. Even without having conducted a full review, the Zeemote JS1 made an immediate positive impression.

In the interest of driving interest from developers to a novel controller, the developer API is free, Marcus reminded me. Eidos (Tomb Raider), Sega of America (Sonic the Hedgehog), Fishlabs, Finblade and other developers have already signed on to adapt their games to the Zeemote interface technology.

The price point for the finished unit would be in the neighborhood of “about $30-50”. The Zeemote JS1 appears to be only a first step for this gaming interface company. “We’ve got a number of interface devices in the pipeline that we’re working on, that we haven’t shown (anywhere yet).”

The real acid test for the JS1 would be a play session with a multiplayer connected game on a mobile handset. Does the JS1 hold up over an hour or two of game play on devices not meant for long-session play? Could the JS1 be used, for example, to navigate like a handheld mouse on a PC phone? The questions about the JS1’s versatility, durability and wear and tear on a mobile handset user are good questions that hopefully we can answer for you soon.


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