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Wrap-Up: 2006 Consumer Electronics Show


January 20, 2006
 

CES History 101

The Consumer Electronics Show, believe it or not, celebrated its 39th birthday this year. A number of household standards and technological bridges have premiered at the show over the years. The video cassette recorder, for example, debuted at CES 1970, back when it was still being held in New York City. The first camcorder premiered in 1981, along with the first compact disc player – a natural evolution of the laserdisc, which was also unveiled at CES, back in 1974 – the year before Atari demonstrated its first home incarnation of Pong and changed the course of the show for a very long time.

At one point CES was the showcase for new videogame technology, the industry's "World's Fair," as journalist Bill Kunkel once described it. The home videogame market was born here, in its relatively humble roots. CES housed the industry's first explosion, with countless games on display for the popular (and failed) home systems in the early '80s; its first implosion, when the numbers went too far and the market became oversaturated; and its rebirth, when the Nintendo Entertainment System made its American debut in 1985. CES housed it all, through thick and thin, until it became too big to be housed under one roof alongside the hundreds of gadget manufacturers. And in 1995, it didn't have to be anymore.

The Interactive Digital Software Association (now the Entertainment Software Association) saw an opportunity, and they grabbed it, by launching the Electronic Entertainment Expo – better known to most as E3 – in 1995. It was new, spacious territory. Finally, there was a trade show specially catered to one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. Like prospectors heading down the Oregon Trail, the games industry packed its bags and headed west – a shorter trip, of course, merely hopping from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. And almost instantly, game representation faded to near-extinction at CES.


The PS3 at CES

 

Microsoft and Sony's Presence

There is still some presence from the big boys, of course. Microsoft and Sony have a consumer electronics market that spreads miles beyond their games division, so missing a CES would be suicide. And once in a while, they'll give us a bit of a surprise, such as at CES 2001, when Microsoft showed off its Xbox for the first time. And as is traditional for both giants, CES 2006 – held as always at the Las Vegas Convention Center – saw both Sony and Microsoft present keynote speeches by someone at the top of their corporate ladders; Sir Howard Stringer and Bill Gates, respectively.

Sony's keynote offered little new information for their games division, focusing primarily on the hardware side of things. Demonstrated live on the show floor was Sony's LocationFree TV technology – a service which allows local television broadcast signals to be streamed worldwide via a broadband internet connection – being utilized on the PlayStation Portable, via an add-on to be sold at a later date. Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Kaz Hirai joined Stringer on stage toward the end of the presentation, which also included questionably relevant guest appearances by film director Ron Howard, Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks, and The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, and discussed the PlayStation 3 in minor detail. Hirai revealed exactly two bits of information: first, that the PlayStation 3 would be released "later this year," and second, that over four thousand development kits have been shipped to date. The rest of his appearance consisted of previously-seen demonstration footage of upcoming software and a bit of sales info on the PS2, which he said had experienced a 10.5% year-over-year gain in holiday sales – making it, apparently, the only one of the three home consoles with positive growth from 2004.

Microsoft's keynote was similarly dry in the games arena, with the only major announcement coming from Microsoft's interactive entertainment vice president Peter Moore revealing that an add-on device capable of playing HD-DVD movies – and only movies, he'd later clarify, not games – will eventually be released for the Xbox 360. HD-DVD is, of course, the only major competitor against Sony's Blu-Ray for the next generation of high-definition media. Moore also revealed new shipping estimates for the Xbox 360, stating that between 4.5 and 5.5 million units will be shipped by the end of June of 2006, aided in no small part by the creation of a third manufacturing plant. Moore also let slip that Capcom's Street Fighter 2 will soon be available on Xbox Live Arcade, both in a free, restricted demo form and in full, via payment.

Both companies also had game presence on the show floor. Microsoft had a cramped segment of its booth dedicated to the Xbox 360, with playable games ranging from the already-available – Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo: Elements of Power, Dead or Alive 4 – to the demo-ready – Full Auto and Fight Night Round 3 – and even one game that has yet to be playable to the Western public, Capcom's zombie-smasher Dead Rising. The booth also offered playable versions of a handful of Windows-based games, including Atari's Sim City-esque Tycoon City: New York and the latest in the Math Blaster line of educational software.


Las Vegas and Microsoft, making friends.

Sony, disappointingly, still has not shown the PlayStation 3 in playable form, opting instead to show a prototype unit behind glass and a looping demonstration reel that managed to draw crowds throughout the entire duration of the show, with previously-seen trailers for Metal Gear Solid 4, MotorStorm, a project from Koei, and others. Playable on the PSP were a handful of upcoming games, most notable being Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror and the quirky car-jumping adventure, Pursuit Force.

Sony Online Entertainment themselves had a relatively hidden presence at CES this year, opting for a hotel room at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, just a $5 monorail ride away from the Convention Center. Here, invited members of the press were shown the latest playable builds of two additional PSP games – Untold Legends: The Warrior's Code and a turn-based strategy title by the name of Field Commander – as well as the latest expansion packs to the EverQuest series; EverQuest: Prophecy of Ro and EverQuest II: Kingdom of Sky, respectively.

Braving the Show Floor

Beyond the two giants, finding much else game-related on the show floor was an exercise in exploration and minor frustration, spanning both the Las Vegas Convention Center and the off-site Sands Convention Center, which required a shuttle ride through the congested traffic of the Las Vegas strip during mid-afternoon. Small booths were scattered about almost randomly, and finding game-related content practically had to be done by pure coincidence: a good number of them were not grouped into the "games" sub-category of the show's directory, either online or in the provided guide books.

Tiger Telematics' Gizmondo handheld, which made its U.S. premiere in October of last year, had a tiny booth near the back of the Sands. On display were the miniscule number of titles released for the system thus far and, with some prodding, the unit's proposed killer-app Colors – one of a number of games scheduled for last year that have yet to be released – was available to play, on an employee's personal unit. The booth was manned exclusively by sales representatives from three of the ten Gizmondo retailers that exist in the United States. Repeated visits and requests to speak to Gizmondo representatives from avenues other than sales, such as development, PR, or marketing, were met with answers of "They'll be here later," through two days of attempts.


We can show where you are, Gizmondo.

At one point, an unnamed Gizmondo investor stopped by the booth and engaged in conversation with the salesmen.

"Okay, now, what do you tell someone if they ask when Colors is coming out?" he asked.

"Soon," they answered in unison, like schoolchildren.

"Good! And what about the GPS software?"

"Soon," they repeated.

"Very good," he replied, before engaging in a casual conversation about unofficial Gizmondo enthusiast site, gizmondoforums.com, specifically questioning whether or not its users had "yet" managed to compromise the hardware and pirate its software, a questionable conversation to be having within earshot of a journalist.

Further exploration revealed a number of amusing gaming gadgets. The most impressive of the show, a company called eMagin showed a new product called the Z800 3DVisor, a relatively small headset that not only works with a PC's 3D card to produce a stereoscopic, 3D image for the user, but also has motion detection, as mapped to the mouse. This allows, by way of example, a user to perceive Quake in (rather impressive) 3D, with the ability to look around the environment by moving his or her head in a very natural way. The product is currently available to consumers, with a hefty price tag nearing the $700 range.

A gaming fitness device called the Gamerunner made its premiere at the show as well. The Gamerunner is, essentially, a treadmill that interfaces with your PC and allows you, after some configuration, to move a character forward by means of, naturally, walking. This was demonstrated with two units engaging in multiplayer Far Cry. The interface was a bit clunky, requiring the player to unintuitively hold down a button and walk forward to make the on-screen character walk backwards, but we were informed that this is being worked on.

Commodore, now under new ownership, showed a prototype GPS device that, as a bonus, comes pre-packaged with a Nintendo Entertainment System emulator. The product description claims that nine classic Nintendo games will come pre-packaged with the unit, though no one was on hand to tell us exactly which those were. For demonstration purposes, four games were loaded on to the prototype units: Adventure Island II, P.O.W.: Prisoners of War, Mega Man V, and an English translation of Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima IV, the fourth game in the series westerners known as Adventure Island. The game has never been officially released in English. In fact, further investigation revealed that the software displayed on the prototype units was an amateur translation done by an organized group of fans. When asked whether or not this amateur work had been licensed, representatives were unable to comment.

And finally, a Chinese company by the name of JungleTac displayed a number of interesting handheld devices, complete with built-in games of both the 8-bit and 16-bit variety. There were a wide variety of units, with software ranging from original to licensed, including IPs from Disney. Our favorite, however, was a unit called Is Dog, which bore more than a passing resemblance to a 16-bit version of Nintendo's Nintendogs for the DS.


Is Dog? Isn't Nintendogs.

Conclusion

Beyond the above, and the excellent series of pre-show "Game Power" panels held by Digital Hollywood that Gamasutra has previously been covering, there wasn't much for a game journalist – let alone a game developer – to see. The Consumer Electronics Show, despite what its advertisements and on-site signs would indicate, is arguably irrelevant to the gaming community.

Despite what it may have been in the past, CES is a show for gadgets and gizmos, and not for the software they run. If it's the newest games a show-goer craves, he or she should consider E3 instead. For development, networking, and discussion, some might say that Game Developers Conference is the best bet. But if you're a gadget-head, there's no better show in the world.

_____________________________________________________


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