Handheld gaming: The next generation

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COMMENTARY: In an industry awash with buzzwords and clichés, little comes close to the power of the word “convergence”.

Sony has already had great success with the PlayStation 2, not just because of its core function as a game console, but also due to its DVD playing abilities. Now it's making the PlayStation mobile in the form of the PlayStation Portable (PSP).

While the PSP was anticipated at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles as “the walkman of the 21st century”, it was finally unveiled yesterday at Sony's pre-E3 2004 press conference.

While the gamers of the world are already tingling with anticipation of a handheld device that runs the sort of high resolution 3D games that they expect from a games console, the PSP offers more in the way of time killing. It marks the debut of a new media format; called Universal Media Disc (UMD), which offers 1.8GB of data storage in a package only 65mm square.

UMD is not only a convenient way of packaging games, it also provides enough space for Sony to potentially distribute high quality movies formatted for the PSP's 4.3in, 16:9 format TFT screen. Because it's a proprietary format, and the PSP a read-only device, it should act to stem the piracy issues that DVD based consoles have faced.

Besides gaming and movies, the PSP will also act as a portable MP3 player, with support for UMD audio. And, while it has not been clarified, we expect it will also support audio stored on memory sticks that slot into the side of the PSP. Although this will probably come laced with the same highly restrictive digital rights management that is enabled on Sony's current batch of MP3 players.

Add to this the ability to go online and download data either through an 802.11b wireless connection or via a PC USB 2.0 connection and the PSP could potentially be the killer portable device for entertainment focused consumers.

Certainly the early response to Sony's announcement has been accompanied by much salivation and dismay that while the Japanese will get their hands on the device later this year, the rest of us will need to wait until around this time next year for a chance to get one.

On the other side of the gaming fence sits Nintendo, a company that, so far, has shied away from bringing anything other than gaming devices to market. It owns the mobile gaming space thanks to its long running line of Gameboy handhelds, and it too has used a Pre-E3 press conference to unveil what has been one of the biggest mysteries in the gaming world -- the Nintendo DS.

For the past few months, speculation has run rife over just what this product would look like, and how it would function. Small details had been released about it having two 75mm TFT screens, and dual CPUs, but still nobody knew what the end product would look like, and why Nintendo was promising it would deliver totally new gaming experiences.

With a design reminiscent of the Nintendo's old game and watch handheld titles, the DS relies heavily on the use of both vertically oriented screens for its gameplay.

The lower one is a touchscreen, designed to work with a stylus. In the demos shown so far, this screen becomes the major control devices, giving developers unprecedented flexibility to couple gameplay with custom control methods. This is further extended thanks to the inbuilt microphone slot that Nintendo says supports voice recognition for in game control.

This new generation of games will come on removable media that has yet to be shown, but is rumoured to be around the same size as an SD media card.

These slot into the front of the device, while a second, larger slot on the back enables backwards compatibility with games designed for Nintendo's Gameboy Advance handheld. It also supports Wi-Fi for multiplayer gaming hook-ups, however the read-only nature of the DS media means that it's unlikely that we will see the extended media functions of the PSP flowing into Nintendo's world.

In a market which has been dominated by the Gameboy for many moons, it is exciting to see some innovation. It will be a while until we see whether the world's gamers choose the digital media route of the PSP or the brave new control system of the Nintendo DS, but, now that the covers have been taken off the hardware, the hype cycle is starting to spin.

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