News Column

This year's E3 will reveal how industry leaders are rethinking the game

June 9, 2014

By Ian Hamilton, The Orange County Register



June 09--Perhaps something larger is happening when Amazon keeps a tight lid on a rapidly growing technology development hub in the heart of Orange County, Sony spends $380 million on a cloud gaming startup in Aliso Viejo, and Facebook drops $2 billion to buy virtual reality startup Oculus in Irvine.

The buy-up and expansion of gaming technology companies in O.C. over the last few years suggests technology's giants are investing in gaming as a bridge to the next big thing and, as a result, more people might slip into the world of games.

Consider: The $300 proof-of-concept Rift goggles made by Oculus and the $110 motion-sensing game controller Kinect from Microsoft have become standard fare in labs worldwide. Researchers use the gear to make new kinds of virtual experiences that will become available to people at prices never possible before.

The Kinect can transform body movements into an animated avatar on a screen, plopping anyone into a video game, no training needed. Oculus straps a screen to your face to put anyone inside a virtual world. With virtual reality, instead of using a mouse to click a dialog on a screen that says "OK" you might simply nod your head to say "yes."

Improving on these technologies could one day lead to a completely new kind of video game that requires no learning curve because it's as simple as real life. You might be able to sit on your couch but, with a VR headset over your eyes, feel like you're at a table playing a game of cards with a friend who is actually in a different city.

As the Electronic Entertainment Expo gaming conference overtakes Los Angeles this week, the gaming industry will unveil its latest technologies. Here's an overview of some of the gaming trends and how Southern California companies are playing into them.

FACEBOOK'S OCULUS TAKES TO THE SHOW FLOOR AFTER HIRING BINGE

Two summers ago at E3, the Rift made its debut as a duct-taped prototype in the hands of enthusiastic and respected video game engineer John Carmack. Last summer a higher-quality Rift was shown to journalists and industry leaders behind closed doors.

This year is different, with Oculus taking show floor space for the first time. Attendees will be able to experience VR software and games made for the latest generation of Rift goggles.

Since the announcement of its acquisition by Facebook in March, Oculus has been on a hiring spree of technology experts, acknowledging new additions every few days via Twitter as the company embarks on a mission to erase time and space by connecting a billion people in cyberspace.

SONY TRIES VIRTUAL REALITY AND STREAMING GAMES

Sony's attempt at making a Rift-like VR headset is known as Project Morpheus and, like Oculus, the company has been mum on specifics about when it might ship to consumers. The company will show it off at E3.

The more imminent Sony plan, however, is the launch of Playstation Now, a service that could become the Netflix of games.

In 2012 Sony spent $380 million on Dave Perry's Gaikai, a cloud-streaming company. Perry is a longtime Orange County game developer. He started Gaikai with the idea that games could run on high-powered computers in a data center rather than on a box next to the TV. Instead of buying a $400 system, you'd buy a $40 controller and then rent your games online, or maybe pay a monthly fee like Netflix, and stream the games to any device capable of achieving an ultrafast Internet connection.

Sony folded Gaikai into its Playstation Now efforts.

ACTIVISION BLIZZARD EXPANDS INTO TABLETS AND PHONES

Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine launched "Hearthstone" earlier this year on iPad after first launching on the PC and Mac. It's a card game set in Blizzard's "World of Warcraft" universe, and it's easier to learn than its real-world equivalent, "Magic: The Gathering," because it walks players through a tutorial.

The game allows people on PCs, Macs and iPads to all play against each other in quick, 5- to 10-minute matches in a cross-platform competition that is rare in the gaming world. The game doesn't require a person's complete attention to play, either. So someone playing the game on a tablet while also watching TV could play against someone else completely focused on the game at a PC. It's also free to download, making it cheaper to try out than "Magic: The Gathering."

"Hearthstone" is already a hit, played by 10 million people, and that's before the floodgates open wider when iPhone and Android users get versions of the game.

AMAZON BETS ON CROSS-PLATFORM TOOLS

Amazon's recent entry into the market for $100 streaming TV boxes differentiates itself from competitors like Apple or Roku by featuring a microphone in the remote to do voice search; it also works with a $40 controller to play games.

Southern California Amazon employees have been filing patents that surround cross-platform development tools for games. The ideas outlined in the patents could let a developer build a game once and then have it work across Android, iPhone and perhaps Amazon's own devices.

Next week Amazon is expected to unveil a phone of its own design. Will it have games?

Contact the writer: 949-229-2426 or ihamilton@ocregister.com

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(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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Source: Orange County Register (CA)


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