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Changing the Game – One Way or Another

by Michael Heiss Since the Electronic Entertainment Expo — known more popularly as E3 — wrapped up in Los Angeles, the press has had plenty of time to chew over the top level announcements. Given that, you’d think that there would be nothing left to talk about. Yet for those of us who have to deal with installatio

by Michael Heiss

Since the Electronic Entertainment Expo — known more popularly as E3 — wrapped up in Los Angeles, the press has had plenty of time to chew over the top level announcements. Given that, you’d think that there would be nothing left to talk about. Yet for those of us who have to deal with installations more complex than the typical consumer’s “connect it to the TV or maybe to an AVR,” there was, indeed, more to E3 than met the eye. Let’s take a deeper dive both into what was there, and equally as important, what was not discussed or on display.

Toward that end, we may as well start with the most anticipated set of announcements at this year’s E3, Nintendo’s Wii U. This will be the first of the “next generation” consoles, whose introduction will likely stretch through the next 24 to even 36 months. To some extent Wii U plays catch-up to the Xbox 360 and PS3, adding output at up-to 1080p. It does that through HDMI, with 6-channel linear PCM for the audio. There was no mention of the use of either the Dolby or DTS lossey or lossless codecs, but at least there is now a means for experiencing high-quality audio and video in Nintendo console games.

The software load-in will be via a proprietary high-density, 12cm optical disc, with the drive and system also compatible with current Wii discs. Those hoping for a Blu-ray drive from a second video game console will have to go back to PS3 as the only game system with that capability. Of course, there will be network connectivity, but as was the case with many aspects of Wii U, there was no specifics as to whether or not wireless networking will be included. Those thinking ahead to installations with Wii U are advised to simply make certain that another hard-wired network jack is available. Four USB jacks will be on-board for the addition of external hard drive memory, and an SD card slot will also be present.

The fun here, as has been widely reported, comes from the controller. The new Wii U controller looks like a mid-sized tablet that has grown game control buttons. The 16:9 aspect ratio, 6.2-inch diagonal touch-screen display (of unannounced resolution) has all the familiar buttons and control pads along with a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, rumble feature, camera, mic, stereo speakers and a sensor strip with stylus for game control, drawing and information entry.

Clearly, this type of control adds a new dimension to gaming that the designers at Nintendo and their third party partners will definitely take advantage of. It will function as a controller, it will allow transfer of the game from the main display in the room to the controller alone (a cool feature when someone wants to quickly turn the TV to something other than the game), and it will even allow game play that involves both the main screen and the screen on the remote. A good example of that is to imagine placing the touch screen controller on the floor, loading a golf game and then using existing Wii remotes for the golf club swing. The ball tees up on the tablet, and you see it loft down the course on the main screen.

The slot load-console in current form, along with the new controller and the Wii remotes it is backwards compatible with.

This example goes to another important part of the new controller: all existing Wii remotes, controllers, and accessories will be compatible with the Wii U. That, in turn, also means that you’ll have to install the existing Wii Sensor Bar with the new console, even as it was not yet disclosed what type of communication will be used between the new controller and the game. One suspects some sort of RF technology, but the exact details are on the long list of things “to be announced at a later date.”

Here is where you need to do a bit of crystal ball gazing when planning a space for Wii U. For example, while there were sample consoles on the show floor, no one was able to confirm if this is the final form factor. For now, count on something that looks like a slightly shortened Xbox 360 set on its side, with a slot loader for the discs. No shots were made available of the rear panel, so it is unknown if there is an on-board or external power supply and exactly what jacks will be present. All that is known beyond HDMI and a power connection is that there will also be a an “AV Multi Out” connector and component, composite, and S-Video connections in some form. What appears to be a hatch cover on the front panel below the disc slot most likely hides the USB jacks.

The controller for Nintendo’s new WiiU game will allow users to “slide” game play from the controller to the main screen, using both controllers at once as well as just the main screen or the controller’s screen.
Beyond that, there was no mention of any connectivity services, though one must presume that those present in the current Wii system will be carried over, since components like the Balance Board will also be a key part of the new system.

This leaves the two most important items for the new system, which are also in the “later” category. The new system is still very much un-priced and other than a vague “2012,” there is no indication of the availability date. That gives us time to plan as best one can for something that is certain to be a big hit for both dedicated and casual gamers. It will certainly present some integration challenges, but as your clients call for it to be swapped out for existing Wii units or added to anything from the simplest “kids room” to more sophisticated “man caves” or home theaters, the value of systems integrator will once again be proven.

In addition to information on the new Wii U console, sparse though it was, there was also news from Nintendo about new games and software updates for their portable platforms and new games for the current Wii system. Turning things around 180 degrees, Sony also introduced a new portable platform and new games for the existing PS3 system.

Rumored for some time, the announcements at E3 detailed the name of the product known as “Vita,” — pronounced “Veeta,” as in the classic I Love Lucy “Veeta-Vita-Vegamin” episode. As with most announcements at E3, there was as much said as not, though in this case a bit more information was available than for Wii U. Vita will be available globally before the end of 2011 at a price of $249 in the US and 249€ in Europe for the WiFi only model, and $299/299€ for a model adding 3G mobile connectivity. No pricing was announced for carrier plan, but perhaps the best moment of Sony’s press conference was when it was revealed that the carrier for the U.S. will be AT&T. The groans from the audience and the reaction to them by SCEA’s Kaz Hirai was classic.

Sony’s new Vita portable game bears a resemblance to the older PSP and PSP Go models, but adds a touch screen and rear touch control pad, among other upgrades.

Sony was as emphatic that Vita is a portable game and not a phone as Nintendo was that the Wii U remote is not a tablet, and indeed, not even able to function outside of the same room as the Wii U console. That said, the technical specs for Vita are impressive: a 5 inch, 960×544 resolution OLED display with touch screen capability, front and rear cameras with 120fps frame rate at QVGA and 60fps at VGA. There is on-board GPS (in the 3G/WiFi model only), WiFi location support, stereo speakers, a built-in mic. File play support is MP3, AAC and WAVE for audio and MPEG-4, H.264 and MPEG-4 AVC for video. Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR and A2DP supplements the 802.11 b/g/n wireless.

As you begin to see Vita appear in clients’ homes at the end of the year, a few of the features and functionalities are worth noting. For example, adding yet another WiFi device will put additional strain on what may already be an overloaded in-home infrastructure, so guide system upgrades accordingly. Of course, this is yet another device that needs a place and power somewhere to charge the battery, which is not interchangeable with the batteries in the existing PSP and PSP GO models.

Further, data transfer may best be done via WiFi or direct connection using USB, as Vita will have a new and unique type of memory card rather than Sony’s traditional Memory Sticks. With the method by which games for the new Vita portable will be sold and distributed not firmed up at E3, you’ll want to make certain that clients interested in portable games are set for all possible eventualities.

While the samples at E3 were tightly controlled, our quick pass at one showed it to be a novel advance over existing games, with the use of the traditional buttons, front touch screen or rear touch pad varying with the specific game. It will be interesting to see how it fits in to the total PS3 ecosystem as time moves forward.

Curiously, one of the new product announcements from Sony at E3 that seemed to attract the most attention was not a game product at all, but something one might not expect to see previewed at the world’s premier event for the game community. Bursting on to the scene alongside Vita and new games for PS3 was the debut of a 24-inch, LED illuminated, 3D video monitor. Clearly designed to re-enforce Sony’s commitment to 3D for all types of programming, the display has no tuner and does not include a remote, but at a retail price of $499 with one pair of 3D glasses, a six foot HDMI cable, and a copy of the forthcoming Resistance 3 game in 3D included in the product bundle, it will be an interesting bargain when it comes to market in the fall.

The lack of a remote control may seem to be problematic, but this is clearly designed as a “close view” monitor so that switching inputs from back on a couch was probably among the uses considered. An optional remote is available from Sony, and if you end up installing more than one or two of these it clearly makes sense to buy one remote, capture the codes and then offer your clients a third party, programmable system remote. As noted there is no built-in monitor, though with two HDMI inputs the presumption is that one is for the PS3 with its built-in Blu-ray player and the other is for a cable or satellite set top or a computer. A component input is also on-board for that other game console system that lacks HDMI outputs.

One interesting feature of the product is that thanks to a unique take on the fast frame rate required for 3D, you have a choice of standard 3D for appropriate games or other 3D content, or, switching views with a button on top of the glasses, two players can have different views of the same game (in 2D). This takes the place of a split screen and definitely makes “first person shooter” and other games more interesting.

While Nintendo previewed a new console and a unique new controller, and Sony showed their new portable, Microsoft showed neither a new console nor a new portable game. Indeed, save for whatever games are available for Microsoft-based Smartphones, they don’t even have a portable game. One might say that riding high on the recent sales success of Xbox360, and the broad acceptance of Kinect, they don’t really need either.

More than anything, it is Kinect and the way it is changing the face of games that was the focus of Microsoft’s presentations this year both in the press conference and on the E3 exhibit floor. A good example of that was the absence of “Guitar” games and the surge in “Dance” games. Clearly, the goals set out by Microsoft for a “controller-less controller” have been met.

Again, beyond the games, there was little in the way of hardware news for Xbox 360, although there was a taste of the future with demonstrations of a merger of the Bing search engine with Kinect to enable voice search and control to locate content available through Xbox 360 or associated content providers. This was not, as has been reported elsewhere, a full IPTV service, but rather a means to verbally tell the console what you want, have the system hear you and then find what you’ve requested from the likes of Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN and other music and video content from the Xbox LIVE Marketplace.

When it comes to programming, look for availability of YouTube and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) content. Again, with voice control available as an option.

While that is the top level news on the “big three,” no report on E3 would be complete without news of some interesting accessories that you can add to installations to make the game play experience more enjoyable for your clients, and in some cases, to make the installation easier for your teams.

In the latter category, a most interesting product was the DualMount and TriMount systems from dreamGEAR. Solving the perpetual problem of how to easily mount the motion controllers and the Wii Sensor Bar, these could well be the winner of our coveted “This is a great idea, why didn’t I think of that first” award. Here, simplicity and ease of installation is the goal, with a Wii bar and either the PS3 Eye or Kinect secured to a single device that either mounts directly to the wall or attaches to the top of a flat screen display. Quick, easy, almost fool-proof, and reasonably priced, these products are an installation time saver.

As is always the case at E3, there was a wide variety of third party controllers, but the one that caught our eye as answering a true need was the forthcoming “Blu-Mote” remote from snakebyte. Unlike other remotes from Sony and others for the PS3, this is not only compatible with the PS3’s Bluetooth commands, but it is also a full function universal remote compatible with a wide range of IR controlled home entertainment products and programmable for six devices. For products not in the unit’s internal code base, it has IR learning as well. A backlit LCD display has the curious capability, for a remote, of showing the time and room temperature, and unlike all such remotes other than Power A’s 3in1 PS3 remote, all buttons are backlit. Particularly for the installation where the PS3 is used more often for Blu-ray playback than gaming, this should be a big hit when it is available this fall at a $49.99 MSRP.

As they always seem to do at E3, the folks at Nyko came up with something unique. Although it is too early for any of the accessory makers to show chargers and other related devices for either Vita or the new Wii U tablet remote, Nyko forged forward with something unique for Kinect. Their Zoom is a “play range reduction lens” that slips on to the front of the Kinect system, and, by widening the field of view, cuts down the distance that players can stand and still be “seen” by the Kinect by about 40 percent, making it possible to use the Kinect system in smaller rooms. A good way to picture this is to think of being able to play two person games at the distance now required for single play, and to be able to use Kinect with single player games at least two or three feet closer than is now possible. Particularly for smaller guest rooms, dorm rooms, and similar, this will be something that can allow you to install an Xbox 360 with Kinect where it was simply not possible before.

Spending time at E3 is many things, but it is certainly never dull. This year’s event was definitely no exception. While many of the products and concepts shown are still three to perhaps six or more months out, they do prove that — even in light of the attention given to games on Smart phones and tablets — console gaming is very much holding its own as a part of the total entertainment experience. As the details for what was unveiled at E3 become clearer, we’ll continue to keep you posted on the best way to use games and the best way to integrate them into your clients’ systems as a key reason to use your services.