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Taking Control

The Big Three in Game Consoles Raise the Stakes at E3

The annual Electronic Entertainment Expoknown popularly as E3offered this years attendees an embarrassment of riches, with news about new consoles, technology, and hardware in abundance.

The only next-gen game console already on the market is Microsofts Xbox360. Their big announcement at E3 was a competitive hardware package that included high-definition optical disc playback. While pricing and the exact introduction date are still to be announced, there are still some unanswered questions about these add-ons. The HD-DVD drive accessory is similar in form factor to the Xbox 360 console, but a bit smaller. Able to operate in either a vertical or horizontal position, it will connect to the host game console via a USB connection and have a built-in power supply rather than depend on an external brick as the actual console does. Three USB jacks are the only connections on the drive; a mini B connector will presumably be the link to the Xbox, and two standard A type USB connectors will, in all likelihood, perform the same future interactivity functions as the dual USB connectors on the HD-DVD models seen to date from Toshiba and RCA.

More critical, both to those who will install these drives in advanced audio/video entertainment systems and to the end-users who will use them to watch movies, was the absence of HDMI connectivity. At present, the only connections announced were the same analog Y/Pr/Pb component video and optical SP/DIF for digital audio. The lack of HDMI affects connections and capabilities in a number of ways. First, without HDMI the Xbox 360 console/external drive combination will be unable to offer direct digital audio playback to future receivers and processors for the new Dolby Digital Plus/TrueHD formats and the DTS-HD/Master Audio suite of codecs. Without HDMI or even analog audio outputs, the upper playback limit is the current range of lossy Dolby Digital and DTS audio codecs.

Potentially more problematic without HDMI is the possibility that should the program suppliers (i.e. movie studios and other content owners) decide to invoke the Image Constraint Token (ICT) on a disc at some point in the future, resolution through analog video outputs will be limited to 960×540, rather than the full 1920×1080 possible in HD. Yes, at present the studios are not turning the ICT on, but what if they change their minds in the future? In that case, clients using this combo game/DVD system will be short-changed unless a way to add an HDMI adaptor with HDCP protection is offered.

While this uncertainty may have cast a bit of a shadow on the Xbox in some quarters, there were a number of announcements that will help to continue to propel Xbox 360 as a very viable competitor to both current and future consoles from Sony and Nintendo. As you would expect, there is a full slate of new games to be released in the next 12 months, all of which looked to have high potential when viewed in high definition. Extending use of the consoles wireless capabilities, a wireless headset for voice chat and a wireless steering wheel with force feedback are on the way, as is a connector that extends the use of these two accessories to a PC.

For those who ride the HTPC bandwagon in their home theater installations, that was only one of the important announcements from Microsoft at E3. Indeed, a recommitment by Microsoft to PC gaming was emphasized by the first appearance of Bill Gates at an E3 press event. Gates pointed to a new Games for Windows branding identity and the use of those games with the Vista operating system. Barring any further delays, these features will be available in OEM-delivered products at the end of this year, and as a direct-to-consumer upgrade package in early 2007. Broad-stroke themes included a preview of the wide range of first- and third-party game titles that will take advantage of DirectX 10 within Vista including Halo 2, Chrysis, and Flight Simulator X, and cross-platform play, with games such as Shadowrun, which will be the first game linking play on Xbox 360 and a PC running Windows Vista.

Taking that theme one step further, Microsofts Live Anywhere vision is meant to link game play not only between consoles and PCs, but mobile devices and cell phones as well. The goal is to provide a consistent experience with one set of game profiles and scores when playing on any device and through any portal.

If Xbox 360 is here today, Sonys PlayStation 3 is here tomorrowNovember 11, 2006 for Japan and November 17, 2006 for North America, Mainland Europe, and Australasia. Along with that key data point come some major changes to the PS3 strategy.

Like Microsoft, Sony will have a two-SKU strategy. Both models will feature Blu-Ray disc playback, network connectivity, Bluetooth wireless controllers with 6-Axis motion sensing capabilities, four USB ports and an optical digital audio output along with the traditional AV Multi connector for dongle outputs to analog video connections. The base unit includes a 20GB hard drive, the step-up model increases the hard drive capability to 60GB, and also adds card slots for Memory Stick, SD and Compact Flash cards, 802.11 b/g wireless connectivity and most importantly, a single HDMI output.
The game selection will cross all genres, though the most stunning from a graphical presentation was Gran Turisomo HD, the first video game ever demonstrated in 1080p.

Talk of the beauty of the 1080p images, however, raises some interesting points about the latest version of the PS3 strategy. Most important, the entry-level model does not include an HDMI port, making it vulnerable to the same potential problems as the Xbox. At this time there has not been any comment from Sony on the availability of 1080p images from games via the Y/Pr/Pb connection. Similarly, without HDMI, the entry-level PS3 has the same issues in delivering the lossless multichannel audio systems as Xbox 360 does.

For the custom installer, there are some other considerations in the PS3 package. Good news is that the controller has the motion sensing capability, and that there will be incredible new games for PS3 that take advantage of the Eye Toy camera accessory. These items take the game participants out of their chairs, giving you more rationale for carefully planned room/scene lighting and light control in a large-scale home theater installation. The down side is that to build in the motion sensors, Sony has taken the force-feedback feature out of the controller. Of course, you can make lemonade out of this potential lemon by substituting more subwoofers and seat-linked subs where appropriate.

At E3 2005 the spokesmen made a big deal about the console having two HDMI outputs, where now the high-end model will have one and the entry model none at all. While it is true that most consumers would never have implemented the 32:9 display that would have been possible with two separate HDMI output channels, it is probable that the high cost of that feature led to its being dropped. Few would have noticed, but among those few could well be the high-end I just want it; I dont care what it costs clients served by many CI professionals.

Fortunately, there is a new way to provide some of that capability. A number of PS3 games, with Formula One 06 being the first, will include interconnectivity to Sonys PSP handheld game. Imagine a PSP anchored to the side arm of a theater seat, angled on a ball-mount down and to the right of your normal field of view, so that it becomes a virtual rearview mirror. Even better, software upgrades to the PSP itself over the next year will deliver RSS audio, and later on, video download, a Flash player, a web browser, and VoIP support. All of these make PSP an interesting companion for home theaters, even though they are not often thought of as a place for portable games or devices.
Other PS3 items of note include the announcement that the consoles will ship in a gloss black finish, the retention of the curved form factor that will make it impossible to stack these units (although they will apparently be usable in both vertical and horizontal orientation), and the use of a built-in power supply so that the external brick required with Xbox 360 and Nintendos Wii, is not required.

The third member of the game console is Nintendos Wii (pronounced we), previewed last year as Revolution. To no ones surprise, Wii is aimed squarely at the hard-core gamer, and Nintendo made no apologies about a game that is distinctly different from both of its competitors. Wii is DVD based, but does not offer playback for either of the high-definition optical disc systems. It has USB jacks but no plans for HDMI and a digital audio output in either coax or optical flavor seems no where in sight. It is the smallest of the three competitors, but note that like Xbox 360 and unlike PS3, it will require an external power supply brick whose size is yet to be revealed. It is most frequently shown in a vertical orientation using a docking base, but Nintendo representatives confirmed that it will also work horizontally.

The key differentiator for Wii, aside from the unique character-driven games and franchises such as Mario, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda, is the controller that is unlike anything you have seen before. It incorporates motion sensing, as does the PS3 controller, but Wii takes that to a new and higher level. The IR or wired main controller has the buttons needed to engage in game play along with a built-in speaker. You may use it alone, or connect a separate Nunchuck controller that brings even more flexibility and creative options for the game developers.

With the Wii controller and the matching game, you can simulate the swing of a baseball bat, golf club, or tennis racket while adding slice or putting spin on the ball. No special accessory bats or rackets are needed, although an accessory steering wheel for racing games is already in the works. When the full Nunchuck configuration is in use, games could conceivably simulate boxing gloves or adventure games where you have a sword in one hand and a shield in the other.

Like the variations offered by the cameras, games and controllers of the other games, combined with online connectivity for remote game play, Wii presents interesting possibilities for the knowledgeable home theater designer. The high action content of the Wii games, much as with some of the PS3 Eye Toy games, creates a need for different lighting conditions depending on the game in use. These are games that adults will play, and want to play on a big screen with big sound. Theyll need lots of room in which to play them, particularly when you have four people using the controller to play a tennis game. Who better to provide the various lighting scene options for this, along with the control of that lighting than you? A further note is that the IR receiver included as a standard accessory with the Wii console is primarily designed for use in close-in installations and with more conventional video displays. It will take more than a bit of your talent to integrate it in theaters where a front-projection screen is used and the distance from the screen to the location of the console is more than Nintendo may have intended.

As with the competitors, Wii is also interactive and network connected. You will see promotion of the units claim to quick startup, silent operation, and low power consumption as a combination that allows for the console to remain on at all times allowing WiiConnect24 push content to be sent to the console even when it is not in use by gamers.

If the news from E3 is any guide, before the year is out, the game will get very competitive and very interesting, and thats just regarding the hardware and its implementation. Wait until you actually see the games, themselves!

Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles.