Electronics hardware makers on Tuesday showed off snazzy new devices enabling motion-sensing play and 3D effects, intensifying a battle to introduce video-gaming to a new generation of casual users.
Hot on the heels of Microsoft Corp.'s full-body motion-sensing Kinect, Japan's Nintendo Co Ltd on Tuesday took the wraps off a new version of its DS handheld device that can play games and show movies in 3D without glasses.
And Sony Corp. introduced the "Move" - which like Nintendo's popular Wii employs a wand-like controller to double as everything from a tennis racket to a baseball bat in games - and promised up to a score of 3D titles soon for its PlayStation 3 console.
The launches and demonstrations from the triumvirate of gaming hardware makers at this week's E3 expo in Los Angeles - the $60-billion industry's most important annual showcase - set the stage for a pitched battle to bring players beyond the hard-core fanbase into the fold.
Analysts said Microsoft made the biggest splash with a seemingly revolutionary platform that employs no controller, and a clear mandate to target casual players. And Nintendo's move to add a third dimension to its market-leading DS mobile handled device will shore up its market position.
The triumvirate that rules the market for gaming devices is stepping up their battle just as the industry is beginning to recover from a two-year slump. Analysts say laggard Sony, the erstwhile consumer electronics leader that has seen Nintendo surge ahead with the well-received Wii, has a potential winner in Move but that the jury was still out.
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Sony's Move appeared to mimic a gaming system that Nintendo pioneered with the controller-operated Wii a couple years ago, but Sony argued the precision of its technology - which captures every twist and contortion of arm actions - and the ability to employ combinations of buttons will continue to please hard-core players.
"It may well be more versatile than Kinect, but the challenge there is demoing it. Sony does have the biggest challenge ahead of them - they have the furthest to go," said M2 Research analyst Billy Pidgeon.
"It's still possible that Sony could knock them off, but they didn't make the case for doing that this year."
Another innovative technology highlighted was cloud gaming - the hosting and playing of games on servers without the need to buy and store a game from a home device.
Cloud service OnLive announced titles including Ubisoft Entertainment SA's Assassin's Creed and Electronic Arts Inc.'s Mass Effect 2, stored on Dell Inc. servers and played - via AT&T connections on computers and eventually TVs.
"It's a very ambitious project. We will see how it goes," Take Two Interactive Chairman Strauss Zelnick said. "You are talking about a very complex situation, where even small amounts of latency or incompatibility will create a problem. They feel they have solved these problems."
U.S. industry sales - hardware, software and accessories - are down more than 10 per cent at $4.7-billion this year through April, according to research firm NPD Group.
But new technology is expected to drive spending on games. PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates the overall games market - excluding hardware - climbing 6.5 per cent annually on average to $20.7-billion in 2014, from $15.1-billion in 2009.
"The success or failure of these technologies will determine the health and growth of our industry over the next three years," said EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich.
On Tuesday, the creator of Super Mario games and the Wii offered a peek at its 3DS. The device comes with two screens - one a touch screen - and three built-in cameras, enabling the machine to snap digital photos in 3D.
Nintendo, which has seen growth in sales of its industry-leading Wii slow as rivals slash prices, did not say when sales begin or give a retail price, except that it will hit store shelves some time before March 2011.
Growing competition from Apple Inc.'s iPhone, smart phones and social networks is also starting to pose a threat to Nintendo's DS portable player, analysts said.
Electronics makers hope that interest in 3D - sparked in part by blockbuster "Avatar" - will power a new era of growth for an industry still recovering from the 2008-2009 downturn.
"It looked good and seems promising. Its keeping Nintendo on their game and their game is really good. They own the handheld market," said M2's Pidgeon.
Executives are pondering newfangled options for the 3DS, including potentially 3D movies on the device.
"For Nintendo and movie studios it can provide a unique business opportunity," President Satoru Iwata said through a translator. "3DS is expecting to sell a lot in a relatively short time period after the launch."
The 3DS comes after Nintendo forecast a second straight year of smaller profits, as sales of Wiis slow.
It rode strong demand for the Wii and DS to three straight years of record profits through March 2009, but growth slowed last year after Sony and Microsoft cut console prices.
Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime countered that more software was sold for the Wii in 43 months on the market than on any platform over the same time frame.
WE'RE NOT ALONE
Nintendo is not alone in taking the wraps off a hot new gizmo. On Monday, Microsoft said it will begin selling its "Kinect" motion-sensing game system on November 4.
Also on Tuesday, Sony announced that its Move motion-sensing platform - which will compete with the Wii and Kinect - will begin selling on September 15 in Europe, followed a few days later in the United States.
Sony executives said the Move's wand - which has buttons for in-game functions - ensures the platform appeals to as wide a range of players as possible, both casual and hardcore users.
Sony is making a huge bet on 3D gaming, as it is on 3D televisions, arguing it is unique in offering an end-to-end experience, from TVs to content via its entertainment division. It will have over 20 3D titles available for the PlayStation 3, which has a base of 35 million users, by March of 2011.
Kaz Hirai, head of Sony Computer Entertainment, said gamers are key to the demand equation for the company's new 3D-enabled TVs, which are being rolled out to consumers this year.
"To a certain extent gaming is really going to drive the 3D TV adoption," he told Reuters in an interview.