Nintendo Inc.'s Wii gaming system is getting a little more home-entertainment heft.
New software for the console allows users to take all of the music, video and pictures from any computer and pump them into a home theatre system.
As well, a software update released by Nintendo in Japan turns the Wii into a set-top box that allows TV viewers to use their Wiimotes as their TV remote controls.
Already the world's bestselling gaming console in monthly sales, and a close No. 2 behind Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 in overall sales, the tiny gaming system is trying to further its popularity.
While everyone has heard of the Wii's innovative remote control, its short, easy-to-play games and its focus on group and casual gaming, far less attention has been paid to the console's Internet browser and Nintendo's willingness to allow independent gamers and organizations to make software available for the platform.
Nintendo offers an Internet browser on the Wii, which is powered by software from the Opera Software Company. The browser allows users to surf the Internet and check websites or watch YouTube videos.
Navigating the web is simple. Click and drag the screen around using your Wiimote. When you find a link you want to open, just direct the finger pointer over top and click. If you want to visit another site, move the finger pointer near the bottom of the screen and a full QWERTY keyboard pops up, allowing users to enter website addresses.
While the browser is a handy add-on by itself (it costs $5 and can be bought at the Wii's online store), its ability to play Flash video files makes it really appealing. Aside from being able to view YouTube or Yahoo! movies online, the Flash compatibility allows you to take advantage of a free open source program called Orb (www.orb.com)
The program, which has just passed one million users, installs on your networked home PC (sorry, Apple people). The program is tiny - only about 35 megabytes - and it's relatively innocuous when it comes to system performance. Orb then sniffs out all of the media in the "my pictures," "my videos" and "my music" folders on the computer. From there, you're done. Now the media on that computer can be shared with any computer via the Internet. Just log into the Orb media share website (www.mycast.orb.com)
, enter the username and password you set up when installing the software and you will be given access to your files remotely. Orb will use your PC to convert the files (regardless of file format) into Flash and send them securely to wherever you may be.
The Flash conversion makes the program particularly handy for the Wii, which unlike its competitors, does not ship with media-playing abilities. Open the Opera browser and head to Orb's media-sharing website. The interface has been tailored specifically for the Wii browser and it looks more like a DVD menu than a website. Using the Wiimote, just click a folder and immediately watch all your home movies, look at your pictures with friends or play all your stored music at your next party.
The video quality is degraded - don't expect high definition. But it's certainly as good, if not better, than standard definition TV signals.
The best thing about Orb is that it requires no alterations to the Wii. You won't be voiding your warranty or doing anything with the console of which Nintendo may not approve.
Further adding to Wii's appeal is the recent release of the "TV Guide Channel" in Japan. The new feature allows Wii owners to use the Wii-mote as a universal remote control. The remote will allow you to alter the volume on your TV, change channels and even rate TV shows or ask the Wii to send you an e-mail reminding you when a certain show will air.
The program also allows the Wii to take over from your set- top box as the TV guide. Users move the Wiimote to navigate through TV show information and rate TV shows. Users can share their TV ratings with other friends that have a Wii and see what shows those friends are watching regularly.
There is no word on when the "TV Guide Channel" will debut in North America, but Nintendo typically releases new software and programs in Japan (such as its much hyped WiiFit game, which was released in Japan last year and will hit North America in May) about a year before they are made available oversees.