More Than Meets the Eye How Consoles Became Mission Control

More Than Meets the Eye How Consoles Became Mission Control
Used to be that when you bought a thing, it just did the thing you bought it for. Record players played records. Discmen spun CDs. Game consoles played games. No more, no less. Then the PlayStation 2 became the best-selling console in history by doubling as a DVD player. Now consoles have gone beyond mere multitasking, continuing to transform themselves with new functions long after you bring 'em home.

Think of this as a new front in the ongoing console wars. Nintendo's Wii won the first round by proudly claiming to be a games-only machine - unlike Sony and Microsoft's multimedia powerhouses - to facilitate their low price point.

"We wanted consumers to be able to access our products on a lower budget. That's why [we made] the initial decision to leave a DVD player and a lot of other functionality out of the system," explains Nintendo Canada spokesman Matt Ryan. "The other thing is, how many DVD players do people have in their houses? I've got three. I don't need three."

But even if the Wii doesn't play DVDs - though Ryan says it is part of future plans - it still arrived with a photo channel (with a basic built-in editor) and self-updating news and weather channels. Wii owners have since been regularly greeted by a glowing blue light, signalling some neat new trick the little white box had learned overnight, like the Opera web browser and other channels featuring opinion polls, user-generated Mii sharing and, more recently, the Nintendo channel and Wii Speak channel. (The former is filled with trailers, teasers and video interviews with the likes of Mario mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto while the later uses Animal Crossing's packed-in mic to create an audio chat-room.)

Though future North American plans remain under wraps, Nintendo Japan just announced a food-delivery channel and a streaming video channel with all original programming. One Japanese TV exec has already called the latter development, "the stuff of television producers' nightmares."

"Nintendo's focus has always remained on creating new experiences for players," says Ryan, "whereas the other systems, it seems their focus is a lot more on [being] a one-stop console experience for whatever you're into."

Indeed, the real multimedia guns are coming out as the PS3 and 360 fight for second place. The PS3 doubles as a high-def BluRay player and post-launch they've added BD-Live compatibility, letting viewers access exclusive online content, and Remote Play, which lets you use your PSP to access game and video content on your PS3 hard drive via the internet.

Both consoles can act as a media hub, steaming audio, video and photos off your computer. Or you can throw files onto a memory stick and plug them into their USB slots. The PS3 also boasts a web browser and wireless keypad so you need never get off the couch again (oddly, Internet Explorer-maker Microsoft won't allow their 360s to do the same) and both have video chat, though Xbox is only one-on-one while the PS3 can handle a six-person video chat-room.

Both Sony and Microsoft are also getting into the on-demand business... sort of. Down south, Sony's Video Store is filled with downloadable films and TV shows (they just announced an additional 2000 hours of content from MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Spike, Nickelodeon, etc) but rights issues have postponed a Canadian version until they can "launch with a robust offering." (You'd think they could at least offer Sony-produced movies and TV series.) Microsoft's New Xbox Experience operating system includes a video marketplace, which might not be as replete as its American counterpart, but still includes plenty of HD movie downloads. Even better, it boasts an "independent video" channel, kicking off with free downloads of The Guild, an acclaimed World of Warcraft-based web serial created by Felicia Day, the lovely Penny of Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog fame.

Then there's Sony's Second Life-like virtual world PlayStation Home. The beta version has been plagued by griefers and a lack of stuff to do (aside from griefing) but hopefully that will change with the upcoming EA Sports Complex and its many mini-games.

Sony expects all these post-launch features to help double the traditional console life cycle, boasting in a recent press release the PS3 provides "ten years of value with a future-proof system via firmware updates that offer new services and features."

Noting that "just coming up with something that's faster and prettier isn't going to be sufficient," Microsoft's Robbie Bach concurred, telling the San Jose Mercury News that "the life cycle for this generation of consoles - and I'm not just talking about Xbox, I'd include Wii and PS3 as well - is probably going to be a little longer than previous generations."

Nintendo agrees. "We're changing the mould of what the definition is of a product life cycle," Ryan says. "We expect Wii to last as long as consumers are interested, but this far along we've got eight or nine channels and we're going to continue to add stuff. We're just getting started moving beyond having the Wii just play games."

So perhaps this generation's real revolution isn't motion-sensitivity or Blu-ray discs or streaming media hubs but how broadband is keeping our consoles in a state of constant evolution. It's a complete upending of the design philosophy that had gamers getting a new and improved console every half-decade. But if our current consoles are always improving, than the next-gen might not look much different than this one. Except maybe in 3D - can't download that... yet.