The videogames business, after hitting a new sales high last year, this week plans to showcase new technologies to help spur further growth -- including a new product from Nintendo Co. to get users to exercise using their Wii game consoles.
Nintendo plans to announce today that it will ship a new exercise product on May 19 in the U.S. called Wii Fit that comes with a weight-and-motion sensing device called the Wii Balance Board.
In another move, Nintendo will launch a new online service in the U.S. on May 12 called WiiWare that will allow game publishers to distribute new titles over the Internet directly to users instead of on discs. For games distributed over WiiWare, game makers won't need any approval from Nintendo, though they must get their games rated by an industry rating system.
The announcements are part of a wave of innovations game companies are showing at the Game Developers Conference, an annual gathering in San Francisco that emphasizes technology behind games.
Overall, computer and videogames have become a big business, generating $17.94 billion in hardware and software sales last year, up 43% from the prior year. Beyond Nintendo, technology companies are touting innovations, such as voice communications among gamers and even a headset that lets users control actions using their thoughts.
Nintendo's next moves are closely watched because of the huge popularity of the Wii, which uses a motion-sensing controller to let users control golf clubs, weapons and other objects within games. Wii Fit is Nintendo's latest attempt to court novice gamers with a new method of controlling games -- in this case, a short platform that users stand on in front of their television sets. The device measures users' shifting weight to walk them through exercise routines.
"Wii Fit is all about breaking the definition of videogaming, about something that keeps you and your family fit and engaged," said Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo's U.S. division.
Nintendo has sold 1.4 million copies of Wii Fit since it went on sale in Japan Dec. 2. The game will sell for less than $100 in the U.S. More than 10 independent developers are already working on titles that use the balance board, one of which, Namco Bandai Games Inc. of Japan, is adapting a skiing game for the U.S. that it already released in Japan under the name Family Ski.
"It re-creates the sensation of speed, of leaning to the left and right to make your way down the mountain," says Todd Thorson, director of marketing for Namco Bandai's U.S. subsidiary.
Other companies are looking to expand use of the Internet to deliver games. WildTangent Inc. of Redmond, Wash., today will unveil its own program, the WildTangent Orb, for distributing games over the Internet to computers with Microsoft Windows. WildTangent for years has delivered simple "casual" games to PCs through a program that comes installed on more than 25 million new PCs sold each year by Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others.
Alex St. John, CEO of WildTangent, says its new software will enable users to play more sophisticated console games on PCs, and the company has deals to distribute console titles from publishers THQ Inc. and Sierra Online, owned by the games unit of Vivendi SA.
Meanwhile, Sony Online Entertainment will announce an agreement with technology provider Vivox Inc. to offer a new set of voice communications services for gamers. While online gamers often collaborate verbally on missions using Internet-based voice chatting services, the new free offerings from Sony and Vivox will let users chat with other gamers from cellphones if they're away from their computers. Users will also be able to employ "voice fonts" to transform their voices into that of monsters and other game characters.
In far-out innovation, Emotiv Systems Inc. demonstrated a $299 headset that lets users control simple actions within games using their thoughts. Emotiv, which has offices in San Francisco and Sydney, Australia, expects to deliver its headset late this year. The device measures electrical activity in the brain, and works with software to let users record a particular thought pattern that they associate a command in a game, such as lifting an object. To execute that command, they repeat those thoughts.
The system can also be used to detect moods or facial expressions such as a smile or a wink. Emotiv's announcements at the show include a collaboration with International Business Machines Corp. to explore the use of the technology for applications such as virtual worlds -- free-form online environments in which players assume the roles of characters called avatars.