By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
LOS ANGELES — For the past couple of years, TV manufacturers have developed advanced new smart- TV systems almost as pre-emptive strikes against a rumored “Apple iTV” launch, but the upcoming E3 2013 show may ultimately deliver the greatest threats yet to any real or imagined living room entertainment systems.
At the video gaming trade show, which runs June 11-14, Sony and Microsoft are scheduled to reveal the next set of secrets and capabilities about their respective PlayStation 4 and Xbox One systems, which were partially unveiled in recent weeks, following Nintendo’s launch of the Wii U last fall.
For Nintendo, E3 will give its under-performing dualscreen Wii U system a renewed marketing push.
At stake is a massive replacement market. According to IDC video game console penetration stats for worldwide shipments in 2012, Nintendo’s Wii shipped 4.4 million units, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 shipped 10 million units and Sony’s PlayStation 3 shipped13 million units. The Wii U, which was in the market for just the fourth quarter of 2012, notched 3 million unit shipments.
What some of the new systems will attempt is to focus on integrating the living room gaming platform with a host of interactive entertainment options leveraging big screens, small screens and medium screens into an array of multi-layered experiences.
For that reason, some of the console makers have rebadged their gaming consoles as “allin- one” entertainment centers, an indication that beyond gaming, their systems will all access movie services like Netflix, stream music and offer web browsing. Some will even play Blu-ray discs and DVDs and enable video calling.
Microsoft’s Xbox One has even taken aim at smart TVs by adding an HDMI input that allows users to see their cable box screens inside the console. It will also provide links between live TV and Internet content, using fantasy sports and other apps for ESPN and the NFL.
The Xbox One will also present an advanced new user interface with facial and voice recognition, and spoken and gesture commands, like those in some of the latest smart TVs.
Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will play Bluray discs, furthering the home entertainment center attributes, while the Nintendo Wii U does not.
But Lewis Ward, IDC connected consumer gaming research manager, said that Microsoft appears to be the most aggressive of the three in developing a comprehensive home entertainment experience around its next-gen console to rival other devices and approaches.
“I don’t think Sony is looking to cannibalize its smart-TV business,” Ward said. “Obviously, the one-Sony strategy is about finding the synergies between the displays, consoles, mobile devices and so on. I think they will be developing reasons to buy a 4K smart TV and a Play- Station 4 in a bundle.”
More importantly, from an E3 perspective, the new systems all leverage custom AMD system-on-a-chip processing with powerful integrated graphics engines capable of lifting the state of the art in graphics to new levels.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both employ eightcore CPUs, with Sony garnering a slight edge over the Xbox One at 1.84 trillion operations per second (“teraflops”), while the Xbox One clocks in at a rumored 1.2 teraflops. Nintendo’s Wii U has a three-core CPU and a 352-gigaflop GPU.
“The graphics capabilities of games are going to improve at least three or four times what we have on current consoles,” said Ward. “The rendering power is going to get a lot better, we are going to get multitasking and I think you will see a lot of new franchises released for these platforms, which will help reinvigorate the console market, after trending downward for the last couple of years.”
From the controller side, Microsoft’s standard controller includes up to 40 design innovations, improved ergonomics and a new d-pad. But Microsoft has also taken control out of the user’s hands by adding voice, motion and other natural interface instruments using a revamped Kinect high-def camera set-up.
The system is designed with voice and facial recognition as key input devices, with gesture and spoken control at the heart of the experience.
Users can log into the system by speaking and then carry out basic tasks like switching between content selections with simple spoken or gesture commands.
Sony hasn’t revealed much about its DualShock 4 controller yet, beyond offering a “share” button, but, like the PlayStation Vita, it has a built-in trackpad and motion sensor allowing a variety of uses.
The Wii U GamePad, meanwhile, is essentially a large tablet with additional buttons.
The Xbox One incorporates Smart Glass technology to allow second-screen activity on the game pad, while Sony has discussed using companion apps and employing the use of Vita handheld.
“Having dual screens up while you are gaming will be a much more prominent feature of the next-gen experience in the living room,” said IDC’s Ward. “But it remains to be seen how popular that will prove and how far that integration expands.”
From the software perspective, the Xbox One runs a modified version of Windows 8 that enables a splitscreen Snap Mode to multi-task various functions on one screen. A user could, for example, play a video game while talking trash over a Skype video call.
Sony was less revealing in its initial press conference, leaving the extent of multitasking and second-screen plans for future announcements.
Clearly, content and video game exclusives will be a big factor in deciding the ultimate victor in the next gen console war.
IDC’s Ward told TWICE that the new consoles may ultimately help to revolutionize entertainment content development and delivery, as Hollywood producers start to produce TV series like SyFy Channel’s “Defiance” and a forthcoming Steven Spielberg-produced series on the Halo franchise, written with video game-playing elements in mind.
“I call it transmedia, or the gameification of Hollywood,” Ward said. “At least on high-key, marquee-value, high-production games, they will henceforth always be accompanied, by at a minimum, an application you will see on your smartphones and tablets, and on the higher end, deep integration of a periodic or episodic story-based TV show to accompany the release of a full-on gaming universe.”
If past trends continue, price will be a huge determining factor, particularly in these difficult economic times.
Nintendo’s Wii U 8GB basic set currently rings in at a $300 suggested retail, and has struggled to meet initial sales expectations to date.
IDC’s Ward said he expects the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will have to stay in the $400 to $450 range to be competitive.
Ultimately, Ward’s forecasts call for sales of the new generation of consoles to be lower than the previous generation. At their peak in 2008, video game consoles reached 55 million shipments for the year, he said.
“The next peak year will be 2014, and I have that at 44.5 million unit shipments,” Ward said.
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