For those of us in the business of selling, designing, and installing home automation/control and/or entertainment systems there is a familiar litany of trade shows that we visit or at least note the news from. One way or another you’ve probably heard of, been to, or followed CES, CEDIA EXPO, InfoComm, or IFA. For those who lean toward the broadcast world there is NAB and for those with a music industry interest there is NAMM. However, one show that I doubt many of you have heard of or been to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (a.k.a. E3).
One might correctly ask what connection to custom integration there is to a show with a very loud noise floor with most of the action surrounding new “first-person shooter” games, “first-party franchise” games (think Halo, Mario Bros. or Zelda) and the like. In some years that would be correct, at other times such as last year, when there were major hardware platform announcements, the news strikes at the heart of what we do and what need to know.
Nintendo’s Continued Absence
While the actual E3 trade show runs June 10-12, the day before the show opens is key as that is when the major console suppliers hold lavish press/developer/”fan boy” events. In some ways the news comes as much from there as it does from the show, itself. In years gone by we had Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony tout their wears in this way, but as was the case last year, Nintendo took a pass again. With no new hardware and games and accessories that, for the most part, are of interest to their core gamer adherents they had a “digital press event” that you can view here.
Nintendo’s “amiibo” concept will combine action figures with game play.
With reports widely speculating that WiiU is lagging far behind Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Nintendo is sticking to its knitting with no new hardware this year outside of the “amiibo” character figures that you place on the controller along the lines of Disney’s Infinity character toys. Thus, with all their news about forthcoming games, no new hardware and no mention of integration of additional streaming content services, Nintendo is a “No News” item for us at E3 2014.
Microsoft was All About Games
Since Microsoft had the first press event on June 9, we’ll devote our first detailed report to them.
Where at last year’s roll out event for Xbox One there was much attention paid to the console’s ability to integrate with cable or satellite set tops, the capabilities of Kinect for motion control and the numerous streaming services available for Xbox One, this year the story was very different. Despite the fact that the event at USC’s Galen Center took place on the same day as Microsoft started selling a “Kinect-less” version of Xbox One for the same $399 retail as PlayStation 4, there was no mention of that or anything to do with the Xbox hardware. Unlike every other Microsoft event at E3 (and I’ve been to them all), there were none of the following staples: demo venues on stage, celebrity appearances by entertainment or sports stars, mention of sports games, mention of streaming services or anything to do with entertainment content, or mention of Kinect. In other words, this event was “dis-Kinect-ed.”
This year’s Microsoft briefing was much different from last year. The bottom photo of the speaker’s teleprompter at the Xbox Media Briefing during E3 tells their story for the show this year.
Xbox chief Phil Spencer said it straight up front in the first two minutes of the event: “We are devoting our entire event to games.” For the next 90 minutes it was game trailer after game trailer after game trailer, sometimes introduced by the developers, sometimes not. Some games were Xbox One platform exclusives, some were third-party games available on PS4 and perhaps WiiU, some were new, some were “reboots.” For a company that seemed to be staking its future in the console world on making Xbox One the hub of a home entertainment system, it was just plain odd to not hear one word about anything other than games.
Well, perhaps not. After all, they are called “game” consoles. Does that mean that Microsoft is changing or abandoning their strategy? Likely not. However, what it does possibly signal is the fact that with reports showing PlayStation 4 consistently outselling Xbox One, they have to go to the core audience: gamers. The rest will follow in time but for now it seems clear that Xbox’s marketing efforts will be “all games, all the time.”
Sony was All Games and More
With that, we’re left to the third leg of our game console stool: Sony and its PlayStation and Vita. Yes, these are game consoles, but the press and developer event at least referred not only to game content but also to the entertainment services clearly driven by PlayStation Network, the forthcoming PlayStation Now, and the content not only from the likes of Netflix that, to be fair, is available on the other console systems, but also Sony’s own studio-driven titles and services.
Make no mistake about it: Sony is also “all about the games,” but the take at E3 was a bit broader. In addition to game exclusives, their pitch on cross-platform third-party games is that they “play better” on a PS4. Want to take part in the new “broadcast your game play” trend popularized by the likes of Twitch? Sony announced that they will add YouTube to PS4 with a definite focus on users being able to send game recordings to friends, perhaps to brag. What does this mean to you from a systems hardware perspective? Along with our constant plea to upgrade a client’s networking and wireless infrastructure whenever you have a chance, this will mean provisioning for a hard-wire connection to a special “gamer headset with chat mic” so that the gamer can replay himself or herself achieving a high score or that elusive “next level” with what can only be described as “gamer/director commentary” added. Unlike wireless headsets for music, currently these must be wired regardless of the console platform.
The banner screens at the end of the Sony press event pointed to more than “just games”, but games were clearly the focus this year.
Unlike their competitors, there were also some hardware announcements that might have some impact on your installation plans and designs. For situations where the game console will be out in the open in a modern décor Sony will offer a limited edition of the system in “Glacier White,” starting on September 9. More DUALSHOCK4 remotes will also be available not only in white but also in “Urban Camouflage.”
More importantly, Sony is expanding its online offerings with the PlayStation Now service, starting an open Beta on July 31 on PS4 consoles, then moving later to PS3, PlayStation Vita, and eventually PlayStation TV. The new service will leverage cloud-based technology to stream PS3 games and in the early test phases a number of pricing tiers, operations, and rental durations will be tested as it moves toward full availability at the end of the year.
“PlayStation TV”? What’s That? Glad You Asked.
PlayStation TV will be in an interesting addition to the (relatively) low-cost set top units this fall. PlayStation TV, with an announced “fall” availability, can best be described as the guts of a PlayStation Vita in an in-home, rather than portable, form factor. It has a special memory card slot to increase on-board storage, wired and wireless networking, a USB 3.0 port, and an HDMI port for connection to your TV. At least for now, in the spirit of “all games, all the time”, the focus of what it will do centers around PlayStation Now’s ability to “stream to play” more than 100 PS3 games, another without the need for a console, as well as more than 1,000 PSP, Vita, and PS One titles. There will be a way to upload game play in a Twitch-like fashion as well as play games in an Ad Hoc wireless mode with a Vita handheld.
If this is starting to sound conceptually like an Amazon Fire TV you’re not far off the mark, but that would lead you to ask about non-gaming movie and entertainment content. At E3 Sony officials were mum about that other than to say it is coming and that we’ll learn more before the launch. One has to believe that it will have Netflix and other mainline services as well as access to Sony’s own movie and music services. Draw your own conclusions, but time will tell.
The one other key differentiator, and this is the key and unique one, is that PlayStation TV will have the ability to stream PS4 games from a PS4 console elsewhere in the home that is on the same network. Yes, you still need at least one PS4, but much as with the “follow me” capability of some cable and satellite set tops, with PlayStation TV you will be able to start a game on the main console and then move to another room and continue the play.
Retail pricing will be $99, with a $139 bundle also set to be available with an HDMI cable, a DUALSHOCK3 controller, an 8GB memory card and a voucher to download “The Lego Movie” game. Particularly when we have more clarity on the streaming services and content that will be available, it will be interesting to see how this “console-less console” competes against not only Amazon FireTV but also Roku and any offerings still to come from Google beyond the current Chromecast.
Before we leave Sony’s announcements, one other interesting piece of news is that PlayStation Now will be available this fall on select Sony XBR and KDL models, including most of the UHD sets. That means you will basically be able to have the same functionality as with the PlayStation TV, as just described, without having to spend another $100 on the external box. Although the service will be embedded in 4K/UHD displays, as far as we know at this point, they will render in 720p or 1080p and then be upscaled to “4K.” Indeed, throughout our time at the E3 press events and in a day on the show floor there was absolutely no mention of any content rendered out in a game console in 4K.
Sony’s Project Morpheus will the their take on virtual reality.Looking into the future a bit Sony did show the latest incarnation of their “Project Morpheus,” which is a virtual reality goggle-like device. No plans for its introduction were announced, but it did present one alternative to the highly publicized Oculus Rift. Acquired by Facebook earlier this year for about $2-billion, it was shown on the E3 exhibit floor with working models. We checked it out and found the resolution a bit grainy to the point where we would prefer HD games on a big screen as our preference for an immersive gaming environment, but that’s a personal opinion. However, there is no denying that going forward, VR systems will be something you’ll have to deal with and judging by the multiple HDMI and other connections for the prototype Morpheus demos this is something you’ll have to learn and navigate.
What does this boil down to at the end of the day? As noted, and as usual in our ramblings, you can never be too thin, too rich, have too much bandwidth capacity in an installation. Here, of course, the latter is your route the former. While the emphasis at E3 this year was on games, games, and more games, there is an increasing trend toward accessing those games via streaming services, recording them, and uploading them via Twitch or other means, and for intra-game play within the home.
Where is all the talk of game consoles as entertainment hubs that are the central part of a system? This year’s E3 is heavy on the “game” and light on “entertainment content” unless it is a game. That’s why they call them “game consoles,” right? On the other hand, streaming content and the services by which it is delivered are clearly the wave of the future. Don’t misread the game-centric announcements at E3 as an abandonment of that concept. E3 is a game show and the announcements were logically focused on that market. You won’t see many games at InfoComm next week, but that doesn’t mean the market is giving up on games. The same will hold true for CEDIA EXPO, where all of this will come together in the integrated systems world we all serve. In the mean time, keep those networks viable and lit up for the increased usage all of this will draw from them and take a break during the summer for some relaxation with a game or two.
CEDIA Fellow Michael Heiss is a contributing editor to Residential Systems out of Sherman Oaks, CA.