It's All in the Game ; More Than Toys, New Video-Game Systems Play Movies and Surf the Web. Will They Beat out the PC as the Do-It-All Device?
Paul, Noel C., The Christian Science Monitor
In the past five years, innovation in the video-game industry has moved at the pace of a hungry Pac Man. Today's games feature 3-D graphics, lightning-quick play-action, and music like a techno- party dance track.
Still, amid this creative renaissance, the stereotypical video- game user remains the same: the teenage male.
But that could change.
If electronic giants like Sony and Microsoft have their way, the video-game console will not only be used by teenage gamers, but would soon become the center of family entertainment - a multipurpose megabox with which people can play DVD movies and browse the Web, as well as operate major home appliances like the dishwasher or garage door.
The idea of consolidating disparate electronic devices into one machine is often called "convergence." It has been a buzzword in the electronics industry and among savvier consumers since engineers realized machines could use digital technology to store more information with less space.
For most of the past decade, technology experts have speculated which machine - PCs, televisions, cable boxes, among others - would score best with consumers as an entertainment center. The debate has recently heated up, though, with studies showing people look to their PCs to perform the nitty-gritty of word processing and spreadsheets, but not for pure entertainment.
Enter the video-game console, which operates the games themselves, plays DVDs, and, more important, will be in 44 million homes by 2003.
"Sales of personal computers are growing modestly," says Bob Alexander, president of Alexander & Associates, a technology consulting firm. "But when these game machines come in, they go from zero to 40 million households in a few years. They attract much more interest across a cross section of Americans."
Suddenly in the lead on convergence
"If you go back five years and look at all those conferences at PC shows nobody was talking about video games being part of convergence," says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association. "Now, what most people agree is the first potential convergence device is coming from the video-game industry."
Japan's Sony sounded the industry's battle cry last spring when it announced the new version of its wildly popular PlayStation game console would play DVDs and, soon after, include a broadband Internet hookup.
Experts agree the PlayStation 2, set for release in the US later this month at $299, will take the gaming experience to a new level. But Sony intends the PS2, and its progeny, to sell more than just video games.
Kazuo Hirai, head of Sony's computer division, says PS2 is "not the future of video-game entertainment, [but] the future of entertainment, period."
"Sony clearly sees PlayStation playing a convergence role, and at the center of home entertainment," says Marjorie Costello, editor of CE Online News, an electronics-industry online newsletter. "It's what they call part of their vision of e-Sony."
A victory in the convergence war would mean a boom in game sales, which already account for one-third of Sony's profits. It might also help Sony corner the market on various electronic goods - like music speakers or video cameras - by making the PS2 solely compatible with Sony products.
More important, perhaps, a central console could connect with home appliances as well. Companies like the Morrisville, N.C.- based Home Director Inc., now offers to wire people's homes with Internet connections in every room and, in the future, every appliance.
Mark Schmidt, Home Director's vice president of marketing, says the video-game console might become the place where families of the future monitor everything from their refrigerators to their air conditioning. …