Razer has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in 1998 when it released the Boomslang mouse. Now the company develops not only mice, but keyboards, headsets, mousepads, and even motion controllers, all of which were on display at E3 2011.
Razer had its lineup of Star Wars: The Old Republic branded peripherals on display behind glass, which included a mouse, a mousepad, a headset, and a keyboard. Though game-branded peripherals from Razer are typically little more than the same products with slight stylistic and lighting changes (and this was mostly the case with the mouse, mouse pad, and headset) the keyboard proved to be a deviation from the norm.
Aside from macro keys and some choice elements of aesthetic flair — like accent lighting or the cryptic Aurebesh writing system from the Star Wars universe being printed on each of the keys — the real attraction on the keyboard is the inclusion of an LCD track panel and 10 dynamic, adaptive tactile keys. The full-color touchscreen can be used for any number of applications, such as an information display, troop selection, or macro programming, while the icons on (and subsequently, the functions of) the adaptive keys change depending on the context of the situation.
For example, if a user was playing a real-time strategy game and selected his barracks, the keys would then change to represent the different units he could produce from that barracks. A single press of one of the keys would instantly queue up the production of a soldier or whatever kind of units are available.
As I mentioned, the other Star Wars peripherals are relatively pedestrian (with features like interchangeable plates that sported either the republic or imperial insignias), they did have a few nice touches. The headset, for instance, is 5.1 surround sound and features dynamic lighting that flashes when enemies are approaching you from behind. The Razer rep that was walking me through the products claimed that the intention of such lighting, which is found across many of its products, is to “increase your edge” over the competition.
Given how the company started, it wouldn’t have been a Razer showing without its expansive lineup of mice. Granted, most of what was behind the glass display case were products that have long since hit the market, but there were a couple of mice featuring Razer’s new 4G dual-sensor system, which sounded intriguing.
In a move that some might brand a little excessive, the mice featuring the 4G dual-sensor system — the wireless Mamba and the Imperator — featured enhanced tracking thanks to the use of both an optical sensor and a laser. Unlike the last line of mice, which only used a laser, these high-end peripherals calibrate to specific surfaces using the optical sensor while the laser provides extra precision. Also, in an effort to cut down on shaking and wild camera movements when the mouse is lifted (think broad strokes when trying to pan with a sniper scope), the tracking is cut off whenever the mouse leaves its surface.
Hydra Brings Precision Motion-Based Gaming to PC
Also on display, and thankfully not behind glass so I could actually get my hands on it, was the Razer Hydra, a motion-sensing controller system for the PC. Consisting of a base station and two controllers that resemble the Wii Nunchuk, the Hydra utilizes magnetic motion sensing, decreasing the latency and increasing the precision.
Using the Hydra, which was hooked up to a copy of Portal 2, required a bit of getting used to. It’s not a particularly complicated control scheme, though there are a total of 12 buttons (the controller for each hand features four function buttons, a trigger, and a menu/start/select button). Even some of the gestures that could be used with the Hydra were pretty comfortable and intuitive, such as jerking up the left controller to jump.
Rather, what made the Hydra difficult to become accustomed with was the fact that it was so precise. The magnetic field emitted by the base station sensor provides one-to-one tracking, which was far more sensitive than I was used to than with, say, the Nintendo Wii, especially when I was just moving the controllers to look around. I’m used to having to drag or point the Wiimote to the edges of the screen just to pan the camera; with the Razer, I just had to shift the position of my hands ever so slightly to look somewhere else.
After I got comfortable with the sensitivity of the Hydra, though, I began to feel right at home. The Portal 2 copy they had running featured some of the exclusive DLC that is intended only for the Razer Hydra, and not only was it fun, it had new gameplay elements that brought new dimensions to the game. For instance, objects could now be stretched (by holding down a button and pulling the two controllers apart) and flipped around to create makeshift bridges to cross gaps. Some of the applications of the Hydra’s technology in this DLC were quite clever like that, and I hope that’s a trait that persists across the other 125 Hydra-compatible games (which include high-profile titles like Left 4 Dead 2, Bulletstorm, and Call of Duty: Black Ops).
It was reassuring to see Razer’s hybrid gaming handheld/notebook, the Switchblade, on display at E3. Its existence in the flesh lends credence to the hopes that it will one day become a reality, however, it remained behind glass, as it has been at tradeshows before this, and was subsequently unplayable.
For those unfamiliar with the Switchblade, it’s a clamshell device with online capabilities meant to allow gamers to enjoy PC games on the go; it’s supposed to be especially appropriate for playing MMOs, thanks to its 45-key keyboard. The real twist? All 45 of those keys are tactile, dynamic keys, meaning that they display different images depending on context, like the ones found on The Old Republic keyboard.
For now, though, Razer maintains that the Switchblade is nothing more than a “concept design,” a prototype that the company has zero official plan to develop into a product available for consumer purchase. They haven’t explicitly ruled out mass development of the Switchblade either, though, so we wait with baited breath for more news to come.