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The Networked Home and Beyond

One of the most anticipated developments in the future of computing is the transformation of the game console from a stand-alone box hooked to the TV into the center of a revolution in home networking (see “The Future of TV,” TR November 2001). The latest game boxes bundle powerful processors, graphics and networking technologies in a stable and easy-to-use package, blurring the line between game machine and home computer. And as DVD capabilities are added in, these devices may spur the fabled convergence of different forms of media, from movies, TV and multiplayer games to the interactive Web. “You’re seeing this compelling use of either immersive environments or novel user interfaces that are first developed in many single-user games,” says Microsoft’s Drucker. “Then you take the addition of multiple users, and you put that all together with the way the computers are starting to be used as communication devices and information-disseminating devices, and you’re getting the new media.”

All this could be the first step toward controlling the home. Visionaries have long promised the day when a central computer controls all of a household’s functions-from alarms and lights to washer-dryer and entertainment-making it possible, for example, to use the Web to turn off the coffeepot that was accidentally left on, or to identify a freezer  component that’s having trouble before it fails (and melts the ice cream). 3DO’s Hawkins, for one, thinks that master computer might be the game box.

Hawkins calls the integrated DVD and networking features advanced by the PlayStation 2 when it was introduced in October 2000 “a watershed event” that could set the stage for the long-awaited household takeover. Even Microsoft, which maintains its commitment to the PC as the center of any home network, is preparing for this possible future-initially by giving the Xbox its own DVD and networking capabilities and, down the road, by expanding its involvement with other media. Sony in particular is fomenting the revolution, joining IBM and Toshiba to invest $400 million in developing a chip to power the PlayStation 3. Code-named Cell, it will process instructions in parallel, making it far faster and more powerful than today’s serial processors. In fact, Sony estimates that by the third generation, around 2005, chips in this family will exceed the power of their Intel Pentium contemporaries-giving PlayStation consoles the ability to do much more than play games. In announcing Cell, Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi said it “will raise the curtain on a new era of high-speed, network-based computing.”

This largely game-driven transformation of the home is a clear indicator of how gaming’s influence has spread beyond traditional crossover areas like graphics into almost every aspect of computing. Nonetheless, many game developers don’t view themselves as technologists at all. “There’s a computer in the equation when a game designer is creating a game, but that doesn’t have to be the focus,” says gameLab’s Zimmerman. “Creating a meaningful experience for players is not about technology.”

That, he says, is because the heart of video gaming is something that can’t be captured on a 500-million-transistor chip or in software: it’s the experience a developer sets out to create for game players. Happily for the rest of us, though, developing games with the players’ experience in mind often takes technology to its limits and provides new insights into what computers can do.

So let the games go on.

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