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Work or play?Wii wows IBMers

Big Blue played

a big role in new Nintendo console

By Bob Freund

freund@postbulletin.com

Nintendo Co. calls its newly released game console "Wii," pronounced "we."

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Or, perhaps, "Whee!" to several hundred IBM Rochester employees on Monday.

They played virtual sports like they were on real courts. There were no couches for the gamers to sprawl upon. The players lined up to stand in front of a 32-inch, high-definition screen and move their teams through updated football classic Madden 2007.

Wii comes with a standard controller. But its wireless, motion-sensitive rod was the controller of choice Monday

at the IBM plant, where employees were invited to

try two Wii demonstration models.

On one screen, projected on a wall, IBMers Ray Anderson and Yungwen Wu went through the arm motions of rolling a bowling ball down a virtual alley, watching the pins tumble into strikes and spares. Others players air-punched like boxers or swung their controllers like bats to knock hits into the outfield on the screen. Wii comes with a suite of five sports games.

"The controller is very sensitive to twisting, turning," software writer Brian Bowles said.

"It’s just like real bowling," said Nghia Phan. For example, "You can put spin on it" so that the ball curves and hooks.

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Phan knows exactly how it works. He is chief engineer for IBM’s "Broadway" processor, the electronic brain for the new Nintendo. He led a team of 40 designers based at IBM Rochester, plus a smattering of others in San Jose, Calif., Burlington, Vt., and Haifa, Israel.

The PowerPC chip is the same type that runs systems as small as auto components and as large as iSeries servers. But it has been enhanced for the fast computing demanded by video gaming, Phan said.

IBM engineers made two design tweaks, along with speed and operational enhancements, to their Power PC chip for the Wii game console. Advancements allowed them to cut the chip’s power consumption by 20 percent and controlled heat to the point where Wii can run 24 hours a day, Phan said.

While competitors XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 — both also containing IBM-built chips — focused on high-definition graphics and other features, Nintendo’s Wii was playing up realistic, interactive play, said Brian Nowak, a hard-drive engineer.

For example, in the baseball game, "You actually have to throw the ball," he said.

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