Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images North America
Microsoft employees demonstrate the Kinect peripheral for the new Xbox 360 console at a Microsoft press briefing ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) on June 14, 2010.
Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images North America
I have seen Christmas Future — and I didn't need a ghostly escort; I just needed to visit E3.
E3 is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which showcases the Next New Things in interactive video entertainment. Almost 46,000 people from 90 countries attended this year's expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center to showcase their wares and eyeball the competition. And, of course, to get media types like me excited about what consumers like you are going to want to buy six months from now.
E3 was variously described by attendees I talked to as "the mecca for all things gaming," "the big must-go-to" and "Las Vegas on crack." That last, when you think of it, is a pretty good description of these two huge convention halls, hung with building-sized video monitors exploding with light and sound and vibration.
"This is our industry's biggest and best trade show," says Michael Gallagher, president of the Electronic Software Association. ESA is the trade association that represents US video game publishers and that owns the expo; they're also responsible for rating U.S. video games. Gallagher says E 3 is considered the event for gaming industry professionals because "what happens here is you not only hear about it and get to see it — you get to play it," For gaming reviewers and sellers, the hands-on experience is key. "Then the companies take back what you've been able to use for three days, work on them a bit more, and they're on the shelves last quarter this year, first quarter next year."
Security is really tight in this place. (Note to White House: maybe ask for pointers for the next state dinner ... ) You don't get in if you don't have a badge, and you don't get a badge unless you're part of the industry. Or covering the industry. Or a celebrity: Steven Spielberg was sighted at both the Microsoft and Sony VIP booths playing those companies' interactive movement games; Tom Hanks is reported to have come the next day. Michael Jackson's kids arrived for a tour and charmed everyone with their lovely manners: "They told us they realized children under 17 don't usually get to come, and they thanked us for letting them visit," one publicist sighed.
The Big Three — Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo — all had new products that will have paying customers lined up the same way the convention registrants stood in line to try them out. Sony introduced new hardware for the PlayStation called Move, which realistically interprets your own motions so you can do things like engage in 3 D fisticuffs with a professional boxer (a trainer was there to coach people into how to do a proper uppercut), jam like a true diva with a soundtrack and an avatar that instructs you on the proper choreography (preteen birthday parties, here we come!) or play with and tickle EyePet, the cutest little rascal you've ever seen. (He looks like what you'd get if you mated a Yorkshire Terrier with a spider monkey.)
Microsoft has done away with the controller completely with its Kinect software: your entire body becomes the controller, so you can skateboard, drag race or play tennis without having to hold onto anything at all. Older folks are frustrated by the coordination and learning curve it takes to use a handheld controller; Microsoft has removed that barrier. (It still takes some level of coordination to learn to move correctly, but the people I saw trying Kinect out were enjoying the challenge.) There was some grousing about the learning curve, but I'm guessing Microsoft will tighten that up before they ship units for holiday sales.
And through some kind of electronic voodoo I can't begin to accurately describe, Nintendo has managed to make a 3D version of its popular handheld video console, the DS — without the goofy glasses. And the 3DS has added value: You not only play in 3D, but the handheld takes 3D photos, and has a screen that can adjust how each person playing views the 3D perspective, so nobody's playing on a blurred field.
Fitness games made popular by the Nintendo Wii have only gotten more varied and more sophisticated, and one of the pleasant surprises at E3 was how Nintendo seems to have reawakened after a few years of dormancy. People came into E 3 expecting big announcements from Microsoft and Sony, which they got, but they ended up dazzled by something they didn't expect: technological innovation from Nintendo that made it a player in the gaming world again.
Start saving up. Your own Tiny Tim is going to want a lot of this stuff. And if you're nice and not naughty, maybe he'll even let you take a turn once in awhile.