Screens - Gaming 'Big Brother,' the console 

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The three gaming titans prepare to change the market in '06, one with depth and two with span

Within a year's time, a new batch of video-game consoles will be unleashed on the market. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are the major players in the video-game wars, with each vying for a larger piece of the gaming pie. Video games and consoles have evolved as rapidly as the digital age, and some products now are designed to offer much more than isolated entertainment experiences.

Technological advances consistently produce smaller and faster equipment, with ease of use, portability, and "backward-compatibility" - the ability to play games designed for earlier systems - being the key elements needed to attain synergistic cyber nirvana. Microsoft plans to do just that with this fall's release of its Xbox successor, Xbox 360, which it hopes will be a demographic and technology crossover success. Xbox 360 is much more than just a gaming console. It has a 20-gigabyte, removable, and swappable hard drive that can be used to share pictures downloaded from a digital camera among other things. It also plays CDs and DVDs, and can copy songs from a CD and play them from the hard drive. The Xbox 360 also features high-definition TV output (soon to be standard in the U.S.), 5.1 audio, and internet capability for e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing. Hence the appellation "360," meaning all encompassing.

Not to be outdone, in 2006 Sony will follow the success of Playstation 1 and Playstation 2 (which currently leads the market) with an overhauled and upgraded version called, you guessed it, Playstation 3. Sony's research and development team apparently has opted to spend its time on the actual machine and not the name. Playstation 2 has generated the lion's share of the company's earnings, reportedly about 50 percent, so Sony has a lot to lose if they don't make their console as well-rounded as Microsoft's Promethean juggernaut. But Sony says PS3 will be able to download music and movies from the web, and its processor is said to be 10 times more powerful than a PC and 35 times faster than PS2.

Nintendo, the granddaddy of the bunch, will reenter the fray in '06 as well with Revolution. This console, unlike the Playstation or Xbox, is the successor to a long line of gaming systems dating back to ColecoVision, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo64. Priding itself on tamer, kid-friendly fare such as Super Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon, Nintendo seems content to let its competitors fight to be the multitasking must-have machine. Instead the Revolution will opt for a NASA-like mindset of "faster, better, cheaper" in gameplay and game design. While all three of the upcoming consoles will be able to play most of the previous software designed for its predecessor systems, Nintendo's Revolution will be the only system capable of downloading and playing games from its 20-year-old library, thereby resurrecting hundreds of classic games. Remember Duck Hunt?

It will be interesting to see how many and which households opt for integrated technology systems and which prefer to keep at least some of their entertainment applications discrete. Buy one and perhaps run the risk of repeating a Windows-type fiasco. Buy another and possibly contribute to a diversity needed for progress, technological or otherwise. Either way, any of these machines, or their heirs, could one day become "Big Brother" while keeping us entertained and connected.

By J. Michael Owen



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