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Updated Monday, January 14, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Next-gen video game consoles absent at gadget meeting

By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology columnist

With all the hoopla at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), you’d never guess it was missing a few hugely important products that are about to be released by two of the industry’s biggest players.

I’m talking about new versions of Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation that are expected to debut later this year. They’re potentially the hottest consumer-electronics products of 2013, but there wasn’t a peep about them at the annual gadget mecca.

Bill Gates unveiled the first Xbox at the 2001 CES, but this year Microsoft declined to participate. It’s planning to make a splash at the E3 game conference in June, when it will presumably will reveal the third generation of its console.

Sony had its usual huge presence at CES, but said nothing about its new PlayStation, showing only the PS3 that first appeared in 2006.

This cone of silence — and the variety of other new products on display that bring digital entertainment to TV sets — raises questions about how much demand there is for expensive new game hardware.

Will people pay $300 to $400 to upgrade their consoles, or put that money toward a higher-definition TV with a quad-core processor that streams online movies and connects directly to cloud gaming services?

People are still buying lots of consoles, and Nintendo’s Wii U is off to a pretty good start. But overall game-hardware sales in the U.S. declined 27 percent last year, to $4 billion, down from $5.6 billion in 2011, according to NPD research.

We’re either at the low point of a hardware cycle, or interest is waning because there are other ways to expand the capability your TV.

I’m betting that it’s mostly just a low tide. Especially after seeing clues at CES about the direction console-makers, particularly Sony, are taking. They made me think that the new consoles could be exciting and useful enough to extend their run for another five years or more.

Sony employees went silent whenever I asked about the PlayStation 4, but they showed a lot of technology that seems likely to be in the console, or at least complement the new hardware.

One of them accidentally mentioned to me a 4K video player that will be revealed later this year. My guess is that the PS4 will have this capability, similar to the way the PS3 arrived at the dawn of the Blu-ray era with a Blu-ray drive inside.

Sony lucked out in the naming department, with the PS4 arriving with a wave of 4K TVs coming out this year. The number refers to the roughly 4,000 lines of resolution the new displays have, nearly four times higher than 1080p high-definition sets. These TVs are called “ultra high definition” but Sony emphasizes the numeral 4.

Getting the most out of a 4K set today is tricky. There aren’t 4K videodiscs or other media yet.

Online video services such as Netflix are gearing up to stream 4K content, which will be compressed to minimize the burden on your broadband service. The new 4K TVs can also digitally upscale 1080p content coming out of Blu-ray players.

But for uncompressed, unscaled 4K video, you stream the content from a hard drive containing the big video files. Sony began selling 4K sets last fall and loans buyers a server — basically a PC — that comes loaded with movies. (It’s the least they can do when you pay $25,000 for an 84-inch set.)

Sony showed a prototype of a new version of this server last week. It was a round, metal box similar to the hat-box-shaped Sony Vaio Media Center PCs that Sony discontinued a few years ago.

A representative wouldn’t tell me anything about the capacity of this device, but I overheard a Sony executive showing it off to a group of VIPs. I’m pretty sure he said it will ship with 50 terabytes of storage capacity, preloaded with 90 movies to start, and can store up to 400 movies.

Sony can do this in part because it owns a major movie studio. It has been distributing 4K films for a while, delivering them on hard drives that are plugged in to digital projectors at the theater.

My guess is that Sony is working on some sort of memory device for storing and distributing 4K movies — perhaps a solid-state memory cartridge? — and the PS4 will be one of the first players. Either that, or Sony will to extend the technology developed for its 4K media server to the console.

Sony spokesman Philip Jones wouldn’t talk about this with me when he showed me around the booth.

But Jones did point out some interesting things that you can do with a 4K TV and the current PlayStation. For instance, you can display photos on the screen with 8.3 megapixels of resolution, compared with about 2 megapixels of resolution you’ll see on a current high-def TV.

That may not sound like much, but it tracks with the trend that Apple, Samsung and others are driving toward higher-resolution displays on phones and tablets. It all coincides with the broad enthusiasm for digital photography.

You don’t need a PlayStation to display photos on a TV, but the console does have pretty nice photo-handling software.

Sony also has been dabbling in ways to let PlayStation owners play games side-by-side and see different action on the same set, when wearing 3-D glasses. Last year, it introduced this capability on a PlayStation-branded TV. At CES last week it was showing this feature on a wall-sized display.

Also highlighted in Sony’s booth this year were various ways to use tablets and laptops to navigate and control a TV. The company also showed the Web tablets that it bundles with its 84-inch 4K sets, to browse and control the TV and server.

Combine some of these capabilities with even more vivid games enabled by the next generation of game consoles, and there may be hope yet for the traditional video game business.

I wasn’t the only one snooping around Sony’s booth and the rest of CES for clues about this technology, by the way.

On the plane ride home, I sat near a Microsoft employee who works on planning new Xbox products. When I floated my idea about the PS4 piggybacking on the move toward 4K TVs, he said he wasn’t that enthused about 4K TVs.

The Xbox guy was more excited about video-streaming hardware components shown by Broadcom and others. Using the new 802.11ac flavor of Wi-Fi, Broadcom’s new chips can stream content at up to 867 megabits per second. Broadcom refers to this fast wireless as “5G” technology.

I didn’t make it to Broadcom’s booth, but the company was showing how this hardware can connect four tablets to a TV set.

All four could simultaneously stream content, enabling them to be used for multiplayer gaming.

I'll let you do your own speculation about what that means for the next Xbox.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com


The Associated Press
A convention attendee examines a display of Sony 65-inch Ultra HD LED televisions at the Consumer Electronics Show. Sony said very little about its upcoming PlayStation 4 game console.




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