The Washington Post

At CES, upstarts in gaming industry show off some promising gadgetry

Gamers, you may finally be able to give your thumbs a rest.

With the PrioVR full-body gaming suit, you can take aim at a target in a video game simply by extending your arm. Put on the Oculus Rift, which resembles goggles, and you’ll be able to maneuver within a game by tilting your head. Other devices operate by voice control or by scanning your retina.

The International Consumer Electronic Show has always been known as a showcase for the latest smartphones, tablets and TVs, but this year it also features some promising innovations in the gaming industry. While major game publishers such as Activision and Electronic Arts will not be displaying their wares in Las Vegas, there is a healthy showing of gadgetry from upstart companies aiming to upend the gaming world.

“The consumer has remarkable choices of a broad range of hardware,” said Mike Gallagher, chief executive of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). “You not only have Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony with next-generation consoles, you also have competitors coming in. That shows the health of the industry.”

These newcomers still must prove themselves in a competitive market in which their pricey and sometimes clunky products may struggle to find an audience. And the industry is coming off a banner year that saw the successful launch of two major consoles — Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One. Holiday sales were strong for both, with Sony announcing on Tuesday it had sold 4.2 million consoles in a month. According to the ESA, the number of people worldwide who consider themselves regular video game players recently broke 1 billion for the first time.

New developments in virtual reality technology give players a more interactive gaming experience. Post Buzz's Hayley Tsukayama tries out the latest gadgets from Oculus VR and Virtuix at 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show. (Zoeann Murphy & Hayley Tsukayama/The Washington Post)

Yet analysts say the industry is ripe for a shake-up as customer demand for new kinds of gaming continues to rise.

The revolution is not limited to the way we control games. The jewel in the gaming crown at the CES is Valve, the game publisher that runs Steam — an online store where players can buy titles such as the latest “Call of Duty” as well as games developed by boutique firms. The company made waves in the fall when it announced that it would compete with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One for a spot in living rooms by letting electronics makers power new consoles with a Steam operating system.

Valve customers were frustrated with the existing options and wanted a simpler way to play all their games through their televisions, said Greg Coomer, who works on Valve’s product design.

“If others had been solving that problem, we would have been happy to sit back,” Coomer said.

This week, Valve unveiled 13 machines running its software. Alienware, a division of Dell and a well-known maker of game consoles, has partnered with the firm to develop a console that will sell in the same range as the $400 PlayStation 4 and $500 Xbox One. Cyberpower PC is offering a $499 console, while Falcon Northwest has a high-end box that carries a $6,000 price tag.

The wide range reflects Valve’s ambition to give its 65 million players clear choices, company officials said. “We really view our role in this as being enabling,” said Gabe Newell, Valve’s co-founder and chief executive.

Valve might have the potential to disrupt the market, but it has plenty of competition for the coolest gaming announcement. On the CES showroom floor, product demos are attracting crowds of attendees, waving their arms and tilting their heads as they try out — and try on — gaming accessories.

There are eye-tracking accessories from SteelSeries, as well as an explosion of companies attempting to improve games on mobile devices, with controllers for iPhones, iPads and Android devices.

Then there are the really big dreamers. The most prominent of these is Oculus, with its Rift, a stereoscopic, gogglelike device that lets players navigate games with just the movements of their heads. Virtuix’s Omni gaming treadmill allows players wearing special shoes to feel as though they are walking through a game. PrioVR has made two suits, including a full-body harness that tracks the movement of players’ arms, legs, torsos and heads to let their on-screen characters move when they do. A second version works just for the upper body, in case you want to play while sitting on the couch.

The fact that these companies can make these products at all speaks to an increasing democratization in the gaming world.The process for developing games has loosened considerably, in large part thanks to crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter, which has developed a rabid base of adventurous gamers and enabled companies to fund their products and reach consumers directly.

Oculus and Virtuix got their start as Kickstarter darlings, each raising well over $1 million via the site. Even PrioVR’s failed Kickstarter campaign helped the company develop its product.

Paul Yost, chief of research and development at PrioVR, said the company got valuable feedback from its campaign — even without meeting its funding goal — that allowed the firm to adapt a product it originally designed for military clients. And, Yost said, PrioVR is going to work with Oculus and other companies to make immersive gaming a reality.

“This is the kind of thing we always dreamed about having,” he said.

Sure, many of these gaming accessories are still a little clunky — and expensive. The Oculus Rift is expected to cost about $300. The Omni costs $450 a pop. The PrioVR suit is likely to cost as much as $400 when it becomes available to the public in June or July.

Still, the potential for having a little piece of a “Star Trek” holodeck in your living room for less than $1,000 makes the pipe dreams of generations of gamers feel a whole lot closer to reality.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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