2009 will be remembered as the E3 game event that embraced computer vision. Far from me-too answers to the Wii’s gestural controllers, we saw remarkably different visions of how computer tracking might work.

As expected, Sony had their own motion tracking system to unveil at their press conference. But unlike Microsoft’s 3D camera, Sony opted to build on their already-lovable PlayStation 3 Eye camera with wands with spheres. The controllers look ridiculous, and lack the magic of the Microsoft demos. But don’t dismiss them out of hand. (Sorry, there’s no way to write this story without lots of abstract puns.)

Much of what Microsoft showed was “conceptual” video – and some of the hands-on demonstrations had noticeable latency problems. Sony’s approach, meanwhile, was really quite literal in its demonstation. The tracking looks extremely accurate in 3D space, and latency appears to be minimal.

Above: Video of the press conference – check out how quick and accurate the tracking looks

Via Joystiq; see also Offworld’s excellent 5 Things You Need to Know about the Sony shindig

The other good news for people working as artists and not necessarily mass-market game developers is that you can start to play with these ideas right now. Whereas Microsoft seems to have “lost” the once publicly-available 3D camera SDK for their solution, Sony is using an off-the-shelf camera you can buy right now and doing the rest of the work in software. I really like the use of tangible interfaces with cameras, because you can get more predictable tracking results, and you get the tactile feedback of having something in your hands. (I’m not sure I’d be as excited as they are about having a glowing ball on the end, but maybe I need to channel my inner raver.)

Anyway, here’s my humble prediction: it doesn’t matter how cool the demo looks or what sweeping statements anyone makes. Gameplay alone matters, and that means that what has to happen next is dependent entirely on the tracking working reliably and quickly, and developers building smart stuff around it that works as games. The same, naturally, is true for anyone doing broader interaction design and live visuals.

Sony is also getting further into the augmented reality arena. They have a Tamigotchi/Nintendogs-style augmented reality pet simulator, EyePet, for the console (see Joystiq’s hands-on), plus Invizimals, an augmented reality title for the PS3. Of the two, Invizimals is the most interesting. It’s funny that they immediately design it for kids (too bad, as I can see some office antics with this sort of thing). It’s also evident just how hard designing an effective augmented reality game can be. I don’t think skepticism would be wildly out of place – it’s clear that there’s something powerful about the concept, but not clear just what it will be.

And I don’t need to remind you, if you haven’t joined our tangible interface virtual party Saturday, head to http://hackday.noisepages.com/ARToolkit augmented reality is very much on the plate of stuff we’d like to see people play with. (The other schemes we’re using, Trackmate and reacTIVision, are better suited to 2D tracking on a surface, though they’re very, very reliable for that task.)