Small Firms Try to Hook Gamers With Add-Ons

The Z800 3DVisor from eMagin Corp. takes gamers into three dimensions.
The Z800 3DVisor from eMagin Corp. takes gamers into three dimensions. (Emagin Corp.)
By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, January 19, 2006

For smaller hardware makers in the video game space, the gadget-fest of the International Consumer Electronics Show, held earlier this month in Las Vegas, has become the place to try to score a few points.

Where industry trade expos dedicated to the video game industry are dominated by earth-shattering next-generation video game console announcements or the latest blockbuster sequel titles, CES is a showplace for the quirky long shots -- the oddball technologies that might be, but likely won't be, the Next Big Thing.

Take, for example, GameRunner Inc., a start-up company from Grass Valley, Calif., that's betting that gamers are secretly itching to get off the sofa and burn some calories.

Most action games let players run around by pushing a few buttons on a keyboard or a controller. This company has rigged a treadmill to some PC games to let players actually work up a sweat and knock out a few miles during their game sessions.

GameRunner co-founder Joy Garner argued that the device will save lives, or at least curb weight, by giving hard-core gamers some much-needed exercise. The product, also called GameRunner, is scheduled to be available in October for a retail price of about $450, treadmill included ( ).

"For me, sitting in front of the television can get boring after a while," said Brandon K. Stephens, a Las Vegas resident who attended the show with his brother, John.

GameRunner was intriguing, Stephens said, even more so than the Xbox 360 games he saw at Microsoft's booth, which he said were mostly sharper-looking versions of games he has already played.

Gamers are always on the lookout for more "immersive" gaming experiences. One Bellevue, Wash.-based company, called eMagin Corp., was delivering that with a device that snaps two tiny screens over a person's eyes to create the illusion of a virtual 3-D world.

Though such "virtual reality goggles" have mostly either been flops or staples in lame sci-fi movies, eMagin's set -- hooked up to the game Unreal Tournament -- worked pretty well.

The biggest drawback: a $900 price tag ( ).

Other game hardware companies at the show were looking to make up for the shortcomings of products already on the market.

One flaw of Sony Corp.'s PlayStation Portable, for example, has been that owners can use the device to watch movies and play games on the go, but they can't plug the thing into their TVs. Digital Innovations LLC, an Arlington Heights, Ill.-based company, has devised a $70 image-reading gadget that clicks onto the PSP screen and plugs into a TV. It's sort of a clunky solution -- but one that might appeal to the half-dozen or so PSP users who were on my flight from Vegas back to Washington. ( )

While gadgets like the PSP take root among gamers, it will be interesting to see if such handheld devices or consoles like the Xbox or the PlayStation will steal development dollars away from PC games.

Gaming on computers has been a sometimes declining chunk of game world's revenues, but this year at least one computer company struck back. During a presentation, Dell Inc. founder Michael S. Dell showed off a new, flame-red desktop computer that has four graphics processors -- a hard-core gamer's dream come true -- built into the computer. A typical desktop computer has one ( ).

Dell did not say how much the PC will cost, though it is scheduled to become available this spring.

Meanwhile, console-making giants Microsoft Corp. and Sony were too busy battling over next-generation high-definition DVD standards to say anything noteworthy about their consoles. At the Sony booth, demonstrations of games for the PlayStation3 -- which is scheduled to be released in the spring -- impressed the crowds. But the demos were the same ones the company showcased a year ago.

Microsoft execs Bill Gates and Steven A. Ballmer spent some time duking it out on an Xbox 360 boxing game, but they didn't have much new to say. When Microsoft acknowledged the low supply of its new game console at Gates's keynote speech, the younger guys in the audience grumbled, unsympathetically.

The recent holiday season shortage of the new console was tangible at the company's CES booth: At the Microsoft booth, all of the Xbox 360s were securely bolted down. The computers weren't.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company