Dr. Geek: What CES Meant for Gamers

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Every year the best, most innovative, and oddest inventions in consumer electronics, the type of technological gadgetry that inhabit and enliven our daily lives, come together for an orgy of originality.  The International Consumer Electronics Show, or CES if you are cool enough, wrapped up last week, showcasing everything from Ultra HD television sets (or 4K sets since they have 4x the resolution of current 1080p screens) to smart fridges for the foodies in your life.  But now the convention halls are empty of gadgetry, the awards and condemnations have been meted out, and we are left wondering when the cool stuff will be affordable to a cash strapped society.

And gamers are part of that cash strapped society.  But they were definitely being wooed by innovators at CES, and in this week’s article I am going to review what was on display and could be coming to a store near you.

Coming out of the blue was NVidia’s Project Shield.  The American manufacturer, most known for making some of the best graphics processing units in the world, amazed everyone when they unveiled a handheld gaming device they had been developing.  Project Shield, which features one of the company’s Tegra 4 processors, has a full size game controller and vertical screen that closes unto the controller.  This chimera is essentially merging a television screen with a standard console game controller all with a gaming console built into it.  At the same time, the screen is multi-touch capable, making it a challenge to the new controller developed for the Nintendo Wii-U.  The gaming system will also use Android Jelly Bean for its OS, making it a challenge to the upcoming Ouya for merging Android OS with Google Play apps with more traditional gaming technologies.

It's like holding your living room gaming environment.

It’s like holding your living room gaming environment.

Along with access to Google Play, Nvidia’s library at TegraZone will be available for streaming via the 802.11n wifi connectivity (with 600Mbits/s, that type of speed is needed to stream arcade level games), the device can also connect to specially enabled PCs, giving the Shield access to Steam’s library of games.  There is no word on price yet, but do not expect it to come as cheap as Ouya given all they are packing into it.  Nvidia is aiming to have the first models out on the market in the United States for the second quarter — aka spring — of 2013, which would also put it with Ouya as the first real attempts to bring Android and Google into the gaming market, giving it leg up on Apple, who has not been even hinting at getting into that market.

Another gadget that had all of the tech geeks squeeing was the virtual reality headset from Oculus Rift.  Now, technically, this device wasn’t as much of a surprise when it made its appearance at CES because there was a Kickstarter campaign to finance its development in the fall of 2012, and it received accolades at last summer’s E3 convention.  However, CES gave geeks and reviewers the first chance to play the latest version of the device, and many were blown away by the immersive experience it was able to produce.

The virtual reality they warned us would swallow our souls is finally here.

The virtual reality they warned us would swallow our souls is finally here.

Now, we’ve had people saying virtual reality is going to be the next big thing in entertainment since the 1990s, with little to no actual market impact coming about from the devices that were created.  The headsets were too bulky, the graphics too weak, the latency of the computer reacting to your movements atrocious.  Virtual reality — total sensory immersion into a digital environment — became the purview of academics and arcades.  The Oculus Rift hopes to change all of that by bringing into virtual reality the type of high resolution graphics and fast response time gamers have grown accustomed to through PCs and consoles.  The device attempts to do so by utilizing the stereoscopic 3D technology that has been integrated into movie projection and combining it a wide field of vision and reduced head-tracking latency.  Each eye has its own screen, and the final product will reportedly have 3.5 inch screen for each eye (7 inch total screen).  Imagine holding up an iPhone in front of each eye, and you can get the sense of what it will be like.

Currently, unlike the Ouya and Project Shield, the Oculus Rift is only shipping out this spring (what is it with spring?!) for developers, at $300 a kit.  There is no word yet on when a consumer model will be ready.  Also,  this is not a portable, stand-alone gaming system, as it needs to connect to an external computer.  The device is currently only designed to play games through a PC, although there is talk of making it another interface for gaming consoles, including the Ouya.  I could see it being first made compatible with the Ouya, given that system’s spirit of openness; the proprietary nature of the three big systems would make them less likely to be as friendly to the Oculus Rift (unless one wants to buy it out — and I am looking at you, Sony!).  Still, a virtual reality headset designed specifically for games — and  ultra-realistic games at that — means that we could be seeing the next generation of virtual reality that finally fulfills the dreams of Lawnmower Man, The Matrix, and Futurama.

Before Microsoft unveiled the Surface tablet running the new Windows 8 OS, the 2007 Surface (now called PixelSense) was a touchscreen built into a table and marketed for hotels, restaurants, casinos, and other entertainment venues.  Since that time, tablets and smartphones have made touchscreens mainstream, if not ubiquitous, but the idea of table-sized touchscreens haven’t made much movement into the house.  Lenovo is hoping that their IdeaCentre Horizon will attract attention from hardcore gamers as well as people looking for a PC with that touchscreen experience.

Next step: holographic projection.  I want my Star Wars holochess.

Next step: holographic projection. I want my Star Wars holochess.

The IdeaCentre boasts a 27-inch touchscreen (smaller than 40-inch PixelSense) that operates on Windows 8 with an Intel i7 processor, a full terabyte harddrive and an 8GB RAM.  As a table top device, it allows for multiple users to interface with it simultaneously, meaning that it could be placed down for the whole family to gather around and play digital board games, replacing those pesky physical board games that always seem to be losing pieces.  Imagine an interactive, video-based version of The Game of Life, where you do not have to hunt for those stupid little blue and pink plastic children that always seem to end up under the furniture.  The IdeaCentre also has a pop out stand that allows it to be viewed as a standard computer screen, only a touchscreen one.  Touchscreen monitors are going to be increasingly common this year, and Lenovo is poised to make a splash in the market by offering this table tablet this summer, as long as you don’t mind paying $1000 or more.

Now, while the IdeaCentre might be a great tablet for family game night, it was not the only tablet displayed at CES with the potential to make gamers squee.  Imagine, if you will, two wiimotes stuck on a tablet, and you will have the Razer Edge gaming tablet.  Sporting the latest in gaming specs (the Pro features Intel i7, Nvidie GeForce, 8GB DDR3), it is a standalone 10-inch tablet that just happens to have been optimized for PC gaming.  The tablet is further optimized for gaming with the specially designed tablet sheath, the gamepad controller, that has two remotes — designed similarly to the wiimote or the PS3 Move controllers — on either side, allowing the gamer to grab the tablet by the controllers and play that way.  The tablet also can be docked to a keyboard or have a number of different types of console controllers connected to it.  With the HDMI output, the Edge can even be connected to a television for easier play and display.  The Pro will cost you upwards of $1299, while a lesser version with an i5 and 4GB RAM costs $999.  So this gadget is definitely for the hardcore gamer who doesn’t think the gaming apps of current tablets cut it.

Multiple ways to play and kill all your free time.

Multiple ways to play and kill all your free time.

And finally, the last bit of gaming hardware news comes from Valve, they who have helped revolutionize game production and distribution with Steam.  Long rumored, Valve wants to enter the console market, seeking out a hardware developer to realize their “Steam Box”, a console that would be optimized to stream games from their Steam library.  At CES, one possible Steam Box was unveiled.  Coming from hardware developer Xi3, the codenamed project “Piston” is a modular computing device, similar to the Ouya, that needs to be connected to a television for use.  But, not just one screen: if the Piston holds to Xi3’s X7A design, then it could support three screens simultaneously.  Imagine playing a LAN game with seven of your friends, surrounded by three 44-inch HDTVs.

It's like Ouya, only more masculine looking.  That's important, right?

It’s like Ouya, only more masculine looking. That’s important, right?

Now, the Piston at CES was a prototype only, and there is no word on the console’s specs, price, or release date.  Or if it will even be the product that Valve ultimately chooses to be their foray into the console market.  But with the Shield, the Ouya, and the Piston all circulating amongst game developers and even being released for consumers, we are seeing Valve really pushing itself forward into a market that has been traditionally dominated by Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, in terms of consoles, and Activision, Electronic Arts and Sega, in terms of game development.  Add in Google’s attempt to push their games through the Android OS and apps, and we are seeing more challengers arising, bringing with them smaller developers, indie developers, and even the possibility for ordinary people to design the next big game.

This year’s CES showed us a number of pieces of hardware being developed that each, in their own way, could revolutionize gaming  and that, collectively, represent a growing challenge to and infiltration of a stagnating game marketplace.  Hopefully all of these concepts and ideas can be realized, and sooner rather than later.  I for one cannot way to lose myself in a game via the Oculus Rift, or challenge my friends to Settlers of Catan via a table tablet.  What are you most looking forward to this year?

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