Getting in the Game at E3 - ResidentialSystems.com

Getting in the Game at E3

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In tough economic times, when family travel is cut back and "stay-cations" replace traditional vacations, families increasingly look to things that they can do in, or close to, their homes for entertainment and all-inclusive family activities. While most of your client base may associate big screens and big sound with movies, video games have evolved over the years to where they are a critical part of a home entertainment system--not just in the teens' rooms, but almost anywhere there is video display and audio system.

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The movements of this gamer are accurately captured by the Project Natal system and transferred to a kickball game demo.The centrality of video games to the entertainment experience, and the tremendous value-add that they can bring to any residential system installation was, if you'll pardon the pun, brought home at E3 Expo, held last month in Los Angeles. The decision by the show's organizers to return to the massive halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center showed that games are going strong, even in a down business environment. For a slideshow from the show, click here.

With all three of the major game console platforms (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii) as well as the two major hand-held/portable systems (Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS/DSi) about a third to less than half of the way through their product life cycle, there were no new console announcements. However, that speaks to the power of the platforms as they exist, and points to input devices/controllers, accessories, and software as the ways in which each product will seek to differentiate itself from its competitors. That, in turn, forms the core of the game experience that you deliver as you include the consoles and portables in the systems that you design, install and maintain, and upgrade.

Major Trends
Product differences aside, a few major trends become clear when reviewing the announcements and introductions at the show. First, following on the slow, but gradual march toward "over the top" acquisition of program content by consumers, as described on our recent web exclusive article at www.residentialsystems.com, Microsoft and Sony both made significant moves to increase the amount and type of content that is delivered electronically, along with the ease with which it is accessed and the platforms on which it is viewable. Indeed, any thought that Microsoft might add a Blu-ray drive to the Xbox 360 platform, as they did for HD-DVD with an external drive, was squelched by their announcements about online content. Similarly, though Blu-ray playback remains a major cornerstone of the PS3 platform, the words "Blu-ray" and "movie" were not heard once during the Sony press event. Nintendo? They're all about the games and don't need to bother with that pesky movie stuff.

The next major trend across the various platforms involves "off-the-couch" games, technologies, and input devices. While it is clear that Wii owns this market with the commanding lead established with its motion-sensing controllers and the Wii Balance Board, Sony and Microsoft are looking to take advantage of the higher processing horsepower of their platforms to break the mold when it comes to controllers and how they interact with the game software. These new products are likely to be at least a year or more away, but they will not only change the world of games, they will have a significant impact on how you integrate games into the residential environment, at large, and dedicated home theaters, in particular.

No Price Reductions
Despite pre-show rumors, none of the three console suppliers cut their prices, which seemed to indicate continued confidence in the value of their respective platforms. It's likely that the price reduction rumors will continue to fuel the blogs, and as the holiday season approaches in the fall we may see one or more of the consoles drop their price. With all of that said, let's dive into the details in the order that they were revealed to the press during the pre-show press conferences.

In its traditional spot as "first up," Microsoft took over the Galen Center at USC to prove they have a game of their own. Although the forthcoming, The Beatles: Rock Band will not be an Xbox-exclusive title, the folks from Redmond stole the thunder by bringing Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono on stage, followed by an appearance by Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. The "music game" genre has been increasing in popularity in the past few years, and when this game is released on "9-9-09" it will bring an additional reason for baby-boomers to get into the game beyond what they have done to simply play along with their kids. As suggested here before, this gives you an opportunity to change any place where a game is installed from a simple "game room" to a performance space complete with instrument racks, theme lighting, "stage monitors" for audio and much, much more.

Beyond the new games in all the traditional genres, Microsoft indicated ways in which Xbox 360 will move from game consoles to true entertainment centers. Last, Microsoft announced Xbox360 compatibility with Netflix. This year's news is that Xbox 360 owners will be able to browse and download movies directly and instantly from their game console for the first time.

For movie content downloaded directly via Xbox LIVE, the service will be re-branded as "Zune Video," and in another first for game consoles, instant downloads in 1080p with 5.1 surround will soon be available. It is important to note, however, that the instant HD downloads will require an 8 Mbps broadband connection. Is that level of speed available to your clients, or will they have to make an upgrade to their Internet service? Closer to home, is this something that will require you to upgrade the data distribution infrastructure in a client's home?

While not available yet outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland, it is worth noting that Xbox 360 owners will soon have instant, real-time access to sports, news, and other "live TV" content from BSkyB. It will be interesting to see if this leads to similar content deals in other parts of the world, including North America, even as the movie service adds 10 additional countries in Europe and in both Australia and New Zealand.

An interesting aspect of the way in which sports programming will be able to be viewed where it is available from BSkyB, and for movie content elsewhere, is what we can only call a "party mode." Later this year you will be able to invite friends to watch the movie or game with you, and with a common screen on everyone's display, yell at the refs or umpires in unison during a sports event or add your comments on the movie without worrying about a "SHHH!" from the person sitting next to you. This is a great combination of game consoles, entertainment content acquired online, and social networking, but what's in this for you? Are their headsets or some sort of microphone and back-channel monitor for everyone in the viewing room? This is just another possible value-add for the designer/installer who is up on the latest in games.

Speaking of social networking, Microsoft will add both Facebook and Twitter to Xbox Live, giving new ways to communicate with virtual friends. Using Facebook Connect, your clients will even be able to share "greatest moments" from games such as forthcoming versions of EA Sports' "Tiger Woods PGA TOUR" franchise.

For all the things that are due this year or in the near to mid-term, the greatest noise from Microsoft was the first public showing of "Project Natal," a motion-sensing controller that will add a totally new dimension to gaming. According to Microsoft, this is not a controller, but rather "controller-free gaming." Using a combination of an RGB video camera for facial recognition, an IR "projector" and camera and a custom processor running sophisticated, and proprietary software, the system maps the players' movements to deliver full-body tracking that, in conjunction with on-screen characters or avatars, literally puts the players in the game. There is even a multi-array microphone that not only allows communication without a headset, but further helps the system locate a player's position in free space.

As a note of caution, some of the reports in the popular press described Natal as having a "3D camera," leading some to take that literally as if to say that it creates 3D video. Be advised that is not the case. Yes, the camera enables the system to "see the room" in three dimensions, as opposed to inferring the room in two dimensions, but the resultant image is not 3D. What is going on here is that the system needs the 3D imaging via the monochrome infrared sensor to map the players' positions and movements, not to show them on the screen in 3D.

The demos were quite amazing and convincing, but of course they leave many questions unanswered at this time. The cost and introduction date is still an open issue, but "2010" was floated and given what is inside the box, $200 or more would certainly not be outside the realm of possibility. How much light will you need to provide when the final version of Natal is installed in your clients' theaters? How will it be connected to the game console? How critical is the positioning of the Natal unit so that you will know how to integrate it with retractable screens as well as in the more conventional mode with flat-panel displays? For now, this is all something that we'll have to find out as we go along, but in many respects it is clear that Natal has the possibility to be a (again, pardon the pun) a real "game changer", so consider yourself warned that you'll have to ponder its possible impact on existing or future installations as you work with your clients.

Nintendo was Next
Next up during the E3 press circuit was Nintendo, the acknowledged "third-gen console" sales leader with a reported 50-million plus Wii consoles worldwide since its introduction about two and a half years ago. At E3 the Nintendo team made it clear that they do not either intend to rest on their laurels or let the competition pass them by.

First up will be more content that uses the Wii MotionPlus accessory for the standard controller, first shown last year at E3. Its ability to sense more subtle motion and gamer positioning in 3D space allows game developers to take gamer immersion to new heights. Next is not a new piece of hardware, but rather additional games that take advantage of the Will Balance Board, leading off this fall with Wii Fit Plus. This will definitely get everyone up off the couch, once again presenting both a challenge and opportunity for the designer/installer to make certain that lighting, audio-video monitoring, and integration of controllers is optimized for active gamers.

The new hardware announcement from Nintendo is, as usual, something that probably won't be available in production form until E3 2010, but it is nevertheless an interesting item to consider. While most games and game controllers are made to promote action and activity, the Wii Vitality Sensor will, at least in its initial incarnation, sense the user's pulse and other body information. Looking for all the world like the monitors that are clipped to your finger in the hospital for monitoring vital signs, Wii Vitality Sensor will add bio-feedback as an element of game play to calm things down, rather than raise heart rates. It is way too early to see what the systems integration challenges for this will be, but it is an interesting idea.

The PS3's Motion Controller Prototype
Before hitting the E3 show floor, the last stop on the press circuit was Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), at the legendary Shrine Auditorium. Most of the initial attention was focused on a new version of the PSP platform, called "PSPgo" (officially model PSP-N1000). In addition to improved connectivity and a form factor that has the screen slide up to reveal the game pad controls, the most important change from previous incarnations of PSP is that the UMD drive is replaced with 16Gb of on-board memory and the ability to accept Memory Stick Micro. This definitely falls into line with the trend to electronic entertainment content delivery, as games and other program for PSP will now be managed and delivered through either a direct Internet connection, through a PS3, or through Sony's new "Media Go" application that downloads content to a PC and then transferred to the PSP.

Also available for PSP will be a new music application that uses a "SensMe" music recommendation feature that will attempt to improve PSP's chops as a music and movie player, as well as a game system. As if to underscore the importance of electronically delivered content for all SCEA products, the PlayStation Network will add 16 new program partners, such as Showtime, Starz, E!, HDNet Fights, and more.

On the PS3 side of things, other than the usual announcements of new game titles, there was little for the near term that involves hardware and integration. But, leaving the best for last, Sony unveiled its entry in the motion controller sweepstakes with a prototype product concept that will allow PS3 gamers to also manipulate game characters in 3D, free motion space. Shown in very rough prototype form, the system will use the PlayStation Eye camera and two wand-like devices to let the system determine the players' positioning, so that movement may be mapped into game play.

Although the actual product release is perhaps a year off, the use of the "Eye" camera as part of the system is a hint that anywhere a PS3 is installed, particularly in a large theater room, you should at least some thought to provisioning the connectivity needed for a camera and the lighting and monitoring that will be needed for "off-the-couch" games.

Summing up the "big three", the message is clear that any notion of gaming being the sole province of couch potatoes and teenage boys is wildly obsolete. Gamers come from all ages and much of the action is not just on the screen, it is in the game room. It can't be said often enough: even though few, if any designer-installers have the franchise to sell the consoles themselves, properly planning for them and the connectivity and control they require, as well as for the content access they deliver makes games a key part of any system.

As part of that comes the "bits and pieces" that installers can often carry directly that make all the difference in a totally integrated system. One example of the products in that category that were on display on the show floor once all the press conferences were over was the "Logitech Harmony Adaptor for PS3. This modestly priced product lets you use the IR signals from Harmony remotes with PS3. While it is not designed for use with non-Harmony remotes, it presents an interesting systems option as unlike competitive products used for IR control of PS3s, it is "always on" without the use of a USB port so that you can use the third party systems remote allow use of "turn on" controls not possible with other options.

Across the show floor was a wide variety of guitars and drum input devices too numerous to mention here. However, it shows that with some with some creativity you can help your clients to custom tailor their system to specific tastes. The same goes for the wide range of system coolers and charging bases for all three consoles.

With its motion-sensing controls, Wii offers the widest range of options for accessories. Wandering the show floor we saw products to place the Wii remotes inside everything from the obvious rifles and pistols to bowling balls, tennis rackets, ping-pong paddles, light sabers and everything in between. If a Wii pops up on the pre-bid assessment with a client, regardless of whether it is in, or asked to be placed in, a large-scale home theater or main family entertainment area, or if it is in a kid's room or adult hide-away, look to the incredible range of Wii accessories as a profit opportunity.

The same, of course, goes with any placement of a console game or major use of PC-based games. Perhaps hidden from view with all the attention given to big screens, multichannel sound, home automation, multi-room sound and the other usual suspects in the designer/installer's bag of tricks, integration of games is something that merits your attention as a way to distinguish your proposals and systems from the competition. Be it exercise or music games today, or the advanced "controller-free" games to come in the months and years ahead, the news from this year's E3 once again proves that games are a segment of the business that you should embrace as a way to satisfy both your clients' needs and your own bottom line.

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