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Gather round the 21st century hearth

Once an accessory for the kids, the video game console is set to dominate family entertainment, offering something for everyone.
Sony Computer Entertainment Introduce PlayStation 3
Sony's PlayStation 3 loses its square-ish bulk for a more rounded, aerodynamic look that connotes speed and futurism.Junko Kimura / Getty Images file

In the 1930s family members took seats nearest their Philco 80 radio sets, then the height of consumer technological sophistication.

Over the decades that box of wires in the middle in the family room has progressed from broadcasting scratchy live radio shows to black and white images and now, three-quarters of a century later, hosting interactive digital entertainment. 

Once an accessory for the kids, the video game console is set to dominate family entertainment, offering something for everyone. 

This November Microsoft launches the Xbox 360, its successor to the Xbox game platform.  In 2006 (or even 2007) Sony and Nintendo follow with their console successors, the PlayStation 3 and Revolution, respectively. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

All three next generation consoles promise the most color-saturated and sophisticated interactive entertainment ever available out-of-the box. The Xbox 360 commands three symmetrical Power PC processors running at 3.2 GHz each. Sony actually co-developed a new processor, the Cell, to power the PlayStation 3.

Technological marvels. But the take away message from console makers is not necessarily "polygon count" or "processor speed," but "hub" -- as in the point through which all 21st Century home entertainment must pass.  

Function follows form
How serious are console makers about living room dominance? Their next generation consoles actually look like they belong in one.

Like radios which transformed themselves from a wooden box with wires into tooled, Art Deco-inspired cabinets, the next generation of video game consoles is making a bid for aesthetic respectability.

The original Sony PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox had all the subtlety of a black plastic bricks.

Sony's PlayStation 3 loses its square-ish bulk for a more rounded, aerodynamic look that connotes speed and futurism. 

The Microsoft Xbox 360, reportedly co-designed by Japanese and California-based firms, loses the bulkiness of the original for a graceful, hourglass shape.  It wouldn't look out of place seated at the airport lounge at the old TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International. 

The hub
Here's how Sony and Microsoft see the next generation game consoles (more on Nintendo's positioning later).

Imagine technology that offers entertainment for every member of the family -- from the dedicated role-playing-gamer to the casual dabbler in Backgammon to someone who the avowed non-player.

The next generation will play games, of course, but also stream television shows and music, play DVD's, support video teleconferences and foster online community from the couch; a community that fosters online play, chat sessions, photo sharing, of course, shopping.

It's a future where the video game console remains permanently "on" and connected to the broadband pipe. 

One favorite scenario touted by Microsoft executives is of a family watching a movie or television show and all of a sudden an invite appears on-screen to participate in a Xbox 360 gaming tournament hosted on Xbox Live, the Xbox online subscription service.

What about the games?
Being able to play games like "Halo" or "Grand Theft Auto" will guarantee sales, but it won't get the next generation console in the middle of the living room. 

At a major video game expo earlier this year Microsoft executive J Allard expressed the thinking behind the Xbox 360.

Microsoft Co Ltd's new game console \"Xbox 360\" is displayed in Tokyo May 13, 2005. The video game console has three IBM microprocessors that are expected to deliver powerful computing and advanced graphics, as well as a detachable 20-gigabyte hard drive and the ability to customise the machine's front panel with detachable face-plates. REUTERS/Toru HanaiToru Hanai / X90040

"We used to fill the living room with kids and adults," said Allard, recalling the late 1970s and 1980s, the mythical golden age of home video gaming when games boasted elegantly simple design that didn't require 50-page manuals. 

A 2004 study by AOL reported that U.S. women over the age of 40 spend 50 percent more time each week playing online games than men.  But the online games in question were what the industry calls ""casual games;" quick one-offs or digital versions of more popular board games like Monopoly for the PC.

Trying to bring such gamers into the console fold, the Xbox 360 will offer through its online service downloadable versions of "casual games."  (The Sony PlayStation 3 is expected to offer similar, family friendly titles for download although nothing has been announced.)

Will the determining factor for family entertainment come down to how well the next generation consoles play Backgammon? 

Take a look some numbers related to the Sony PlayStation 3:  A Cell processor running at 3.2 GHz, with two teraflops of overall performance, 256 MB XDR of main RAM at 3.2 GHZ and a graphics chip with 512 MB of graphics render memory capable of 100 billion shader operations and 51 billion dot products per second.

Does this look like a machine built for backgammon? 

We're talking eye candy here. Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will support HDTV.  

All that processing power also means smarter NPCs -- non-player characters -- who will be able to more effectively react and learn from player actions.   There will be more embedded learning and intelligence in how game events transpire.

Games are defined by cause and effect, but the way games may transpire in the next generation will have more parallels to the real world.  A player's actions within a game will have repercussions...and those repercussions will have repercussions. The world will treat the player the way he treats it. 

The more realistic the world, the more gamers can become attached to its outcome.  And the more attached, the greater the chance of emotional attachment. 

Evoking emotion has been another goal of game development and while we can't say whether the processing power of the next generation consoles will be able to meet the challenge, the goal is certainly one step closer.

The hidden and not-so-hidden costs
All this comes at a cost.

Where the radio and the television provided the same entertainment to all families, irrespective of the brand they purchased, the next generation video game consoles require more of a buy in.

As always, games built for one console won't work for another. 

To unlock the full potential of their consoles, users will be required to subscribe to online services that cater to the platform.  The Microsoft Xbox 360 subscription service will be a two-tiered service, one free.  Details on the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Revolution services have not been publicized.  

There will be no communication between the three services.

The commitment runs deeper. The Xbox360 can stream recorded television shows, but only if those shows are recorded on a PC using the next generation of the Windows XP OS. Holy Trojan Horse!

And then there's the price. The Xbox 360 will cost $380 (or $280 if users don't want the wireless controllers and the 20GB hard drive and don't care about playing original Xbox titles).

No price has been announced for the Sony PlayStation 3 although Sony PlayStation president Ken Kutargagi was quoted last month saying "the PS3 can't be offered at a price that's targeted towards households." Huh? Given the fact that households (as opposed to, say, commuter buses) are the primary audience, we'll chalk this up as a misquote.

Still number one for many families
Lost in the battle for the living room between Sony and Microsoft is Nintendo, the oldest player in the business. The Revolution, Nintendo's GameCube successor, remains wrapped in mystery.  When it debuts it will offer improved game graphics and a DVD player. 

Nintendo, however, has made no secret that Nintendo's focus begins and ends with games not how well it integrates with your PC. 

Nintendo's compact-but-powerful next-generation home console, code-named Revolution, is the size of three stacked DVD cases and will play both standard 12-centimeter optical discs and Nintendo GameCube discs in a self-loading media bay. Due in 2006, the Wi-Fi-enabled system also will have downloadable access to 20 years of fan-favorite titles originally released for all of the past Nintendo systems. (PRNewsFoto)NINTENDO

So the Revolution may not conquer living rooms, but it promises to deliver family entertainment. Over the past 25 years the company has released games that are as well designed as they are kid-friendly ... although as any fan of Mario or "Pikmin" or "Legend of Zelda" can attest, these games are by no means only for kids. 

And the Revolution's game-only approach brings us to the last point. 

For all the talk of entertainment hubs and broadband connectivity and aesthetics, what next generation video console ends up in your living room may be determined by the same set of factors that determined previous generations; namely, the games.

The kiddie activity has grown into a $10 billion dollar industry in the United States alone. 

And the kid playing games has grown into a parent.  Gamers are trending older.  According to the Entertainment Software Association, a game lobbying firm, 43 percent of the gaming population is aged 18 to 49 years old.  An additional 19 percent are over the age of 50. 

Look around your family room. The video game console may already be holding center stage.