Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers
(as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a
burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and
you may just get it answered!
As we continue to stalwartly defy the dozens (no seriously, dozens) of
requests to tackle the inner workings of Pokeballs in this column, we come to a
great question from ForestFire55. He asks, "How do wireless controllers
work? Also, if they work without a wire, why can’t it charge wirelessly?" One
question at a time, jeez. We’ll deal with the first part today - the second is actually
worth its own column at some point, as the workings of wireless power are
awesome (in a very complicated, tough to explain kind of way.)
Above: The basic idea of a
controller is unchanged, but they've slowly grown with complexity every
At its most basic level, a controller is a device which translates a
person's brain impulses into a language that computers can understand. It's
basically a common language that both your brain and the computer can speak.
Most people can't understand game code, and most computers can't interpret
brain waves. So a brain translates its desire for Mario to jump into
"press A" and the computer translates "pressed A" into
"MSMQQueueInfo.FormatName = "DIRECT=OS:" & wszComputerName
& "\SYSTEM$;JOURNAL". (Note: that's just an example of
complicated computery code-ish type thing, not an actual command that would
happen if you pressed A.)
First, the basics. All around you, everywhere you go, you are surrounded by
an enormously complex web of waves wiggling in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Light is a good example. It's a wave that has a frequency (how fast it wiggles)
that our eyes are attuned to see. But there are many other frequencies.
Billions. Need proof? Go find a radio and turn it on next to you. You'll be able to tune it to many different
channels that are playing music, ranting about politics etc. What that shows
you is the signal was in the room the entire time. All of them, from Rush
Limbaugh to Howard Stern are in your room/office/basement right now (and inside
your body, if you want to feel gross about Rush Limbaugh being inside of you.)
Above: A wireless device
emits radio waves in all directions simultaneously
The nice thing about these kinds of waves is that two signals operating at
different frequencies don't interfere with each other. You can play radio
station 86.5FM (86.5 megahertz) and 78.4FM (78.4 megahertz) while operating
your microwave (heats things with radio waves that wiggle at a special
frequency, 2.5 gigahertz, which is absorbed by water and fat for reasons that
aren't pertinent to this conversation) and your Xbox 360 controller (2.4 gigahertz)
without any interference. Almost all consumer electronics use the 2.4 gigahertz
frequency. Why? Because the government says so - don’t ask questions.
Waves are weird. It's just something you'll have to accept, because they're
very tough to wrap your head around. For the purposes of this article, you can
think of the process a bit like Morse code, but about two billion times faster.
The wireless controller emits waves (in all directions) and the console picks
up the properties of that wave (sticking with the Morse code idea, think dot,
dash, or space.) It's a code that allows the console to figure out what you're
trying to do.
Enough about waves, though. Let's get back to controllers. The controller's
processor is monitoring the state of the buttons at all times when it's powered
on. When you push a button, you're completing a circuit in the controller which
changes the information being sent to the processor. The processor then sends
that information to the console and Mario jumps.
Above: Thousands of years of
technology went into making this moment possible. Even more if you're playing
on a wireless Wiimote
The complexity continues to grow though, because now we have controllers
that actually receive information from the console instead of just
sending it out. Small motors in the grips of your X360 controllers create
rumble at appropriate times after receiving instructions from the console.
Headsets plugged into the controller can send and receive sound and voice.
So the quick and easy answer is that a wireless controller works like a complicated walkie-talkie,
sending information back and forth via the 2.4 gigahertz radio wave frequency.
We'll tackle the wireless power part of this question soon.
(Note: The Xbox 360 controller has Microsoft's own proprietary technology
inside that helps alleviate some of the delay experienced by other wireless
devices. Timing is too crucial in gaming so even a millisecond delay is often
own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them for
a future Ask GR Anything.