We heard about the Playstation Vita’s online capabilities long before we even knew its name, but the official details are just now solidifying. We knew it would have a net-connected staging area for each game, and a proximity-based social tool (LiveArea and Near respectively), and although some of the functions there are intact, they’ve been tweaked a bit and the features have changed.
“Near” is now a “gifting” system rather than a social discovery tool; it’s for leaving presents at certain locations, accessible to certain people or everyone and consisting of in-game items, challenges, and so on.
“LiveArea” is an all-purpose update system that will show things like notifications from friends, new DLC and updates for games, and (I’m guessing) promotions like PSN game sales and what have you. There’s actually an actual part called Live, which I think Microsoft might actually take issue with. In this case Playstation Live and Xbox Live might actually create confusion.
“Party” is a cross-game voice chat system, accessible throughout the system. You can override it for team-based games (dividing up into red and blue voice channels in-game, for instance) but otherwise it’s pretty much always there. It’s also a friends list thing, and you can build game-related groups for easy launching with your teammates or buddies. Hopefully they’ll add an exception for this so it doesn’t eat up your 3G bandwidth allowance.
Sounds pretty solid to me, although I’m thinking they kind of gutted Near. There’s a lot to be done with proximity-based gaming, more than they can feasibly launch with perhaps. I’d expect multiple updates to these capabilities, though, and of course developers will find interesting ways to use them, so we’ll continue keep an eye on the Vita.