The Futurist: Nintendo's Hit Molded Plastic, Sony Bizarrely Still Believes In UMD

The new E3 Lite is rocking LA. And with it, the Big 3 gaming houses have given us key glimpses into what the next year holds for them. Last year, Nintendo and their warehouse-long Wii lines stole the show. This year, expectations and standards were low enough that all it took was a couple of pieces of molded plastic to get fanboys in a tizzy. Meanwhile, Sony’s major announcement — a slimmed-down PSP — may be nice, but it reeks of the endemic problems that have plagued the company for years…

This is what Nintendo is good at: Getting people excited over incremental or non-existent technological advances. More accurately, they are good at taking existing technology, making it more “fun”, and thus grabbing the spotlight.

After all, the Wii, by far the biggest buzz-gatherer of the current generation of systems, is little more than a GameCube mixed with a gyroscopic air mouse. Still, since its release, it has been compelling enough to drown out Nintendo’s competitors’ cries of “High-def!” and “Blu-ray!”

This year, the most attention-grabbing announcements of the entire show were, in actuality, little more than molded pieces of plastic. The Wii Zapper and Wii Wheel allow the imagination-deficient to turn your Wiimote into a gun and streering wheel. From what I can gather, however, both devices are basically just Wiimote holders that are along the lines of those little tennis racket add-ons that supposedly make Wii Sports more fun.

Now imagine this: You are Sony. You’ve produced the most powerful gaming system the Earth has ever seen. You are selling them for a loss of several hundred dollars a pop. You are finally able to cut the price to something manageable and get a decent lineup of games on shelves. Then, suddenly, it doesn’t even matter because the only thing anybody wants to talk about is a piece of plastic that looks like a steering wheel.

Anyway, the bottom line: Nintendo complete lack of emphasis on any semblance of true technological advancement should keep their profits healthy for years to come.

And Sony?

While the slimmed-down PSP is both overdue and welcome, there is a certain element of Sony-ism to the whole deal. Other than the size reduction, the big “feature” is a video-out slot for easily porting PSP-bound videos to your TV. While, in theory, this could be used for just about any video format you manage to stuff on your PSP, in reality, this is likely Sony’s last-ditch effort to save their ill-fated and absolutely ridiculous UMD file format.

The worst (of the many) problems UMD faced was that movie discs cost about as much as DVDs, but were basically sealed onto your tiny PSP screen, with little practical way of playing them on your TV or computer. Unfortunately for Sony, opening up a video-out channel now, a couple of years after the public has even forgotten about the format’s existence, is just far too little, far too late. Sony has always been slow to learn lessons and to heed public demands for standard and easily-ported file formats, and it has cost them time and time again (look not just at MiniDisc, but also Betamax and the death of their MP3 player line.) For their sake, lets hope they learn their lesson before they are forced to bury Blu-ray too.

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.