Sunday, September 11, 2016

Playstation, X-Box, 4K, and the Home-Theater Thneed

It's hard to keep up with gaming news.  As a rule, I don't bother. 
I've got a Playstation 3, but only because back in 2008, they were the only affordable way of becoming a first Blu-ray disk adopter without frustration or headache...Although the fact that I used to have a Sega Genesis in college, and my parents never got me an Atari 2600 when I was a kid, didn't hurt the sales pitch either.  With the news of the latest Playstation 4 models, I'm still back a few years ago wondering whether they still catch on fire, and didn't even pay attention until they announced an upgrade for Blu3D capability.

Even last Thursday's big event for the two major game console players--timed to coincide with Apple's big iPhone 7 presentation--seems like "old news" to the core gamer community by now, but in my corner of the living-room-box industry, it still has hints of being a happening of major repercussions.
The big headline was that both Sony and Microsoft intend to roll out the "next generation" of their respective Playstation and X-Box One consoles--With the new advancement that both will now have a "regular" mass-market version, the PS4 Slim or X-Box One S, streamlined for the first-timer buyer, and an "advanced" version, the PS4 Pro or an in-development X-Box Scorpio, both now with 4K capability for ultra-high-definition UHD and high-dynamic-range HDR TV screens.
Playstation.Blog US, 9/7
With just one major difference:  Microsoft's Scorpio will be able the play the new 4K UHD Blu-ray disks.  PS4 Pro won't.

Sony stated why:  They wanted the Pro to be more efficient, without the added hardware of a UHD disk drive, to focus on its gaming capabilities and audience.
The new interest to both companies is not so much the consoles, but how each will be able to tap into the new market for virtual-reality player headsets--With Sony offering its own VR goggles, and MS hoping to be compatible with Oculus Rift's.

Most non-gamers will be asking the obvious questions about the new 4K/UHD news:  "What is that, anyway?", and "Who cares?"  To the gaming community, it's a make-or-break deal, leading to the same questions of who's going to "win the war" that's been fighting for eight years.  
Core technical gamers even point out the technical problems, such as the additional "lag" that can occur when ultra-high-definition graphics have to be translated to larger size screens.
(5 Reasons to Be Concerned About the PS4 Pro, Cinemablend 9/8)
But the real problem here lies in between:

4K UHD, a new higher-definition video format for larger-size flatscreens 48" and up (way up) has been the main central focus of the entire home-industry market at the moment, along with a new format of Blu-ray disk that will be needed to measure up to the new larger clarity--Some player/screen companies, like Samsung, even tossed over the previous push for 3D capability, quick to claim it was "dying", just to jump on the new express train.  After all, here came the new format, so time for the old to go into its dance off stage...Isn't that what's always supposed to happen?  And just wait till those VR headsets arrive, amirite, folks?
As Sony and Samsung roll out the first new lines of 4K large-size flatscreen, the picture quality clearly looks sharper and more amazing, but the public's reaction has largely been that they don't know exactly WHY they're meant to buy it.
Which has earned 4K UHD the nickname of "the Home Theater Thneed".  A word, of course, that comes from Dr. Seuss, for something that no one knows what exactly it is (it's a shirt, it's a sock, it's a glove, it's a hat!--But it has other uses, yes, far beyond that!) but good old fashioned Yankee entrepreneurship and marketing can persuade us is something that everyone, everyone, everyone needs. 

Like most formats, Blu-ray, VHS and DVD before it, UHD has to pass the three tests that any new technology has to overcome to drill and root itself into the public's mind as common:
  1. It must solve a consumer problem, 
  2. it needs a Killer App to hook us like bait, and 
  3. it needs to be accessible with fans of an existing technology to use it.

From the looks of things, the first test isn't going very well--The public doesn't quite seem to have a grasp of exactly what 4K is or why it differs from the 3DTV sets they were persuaded to invest in a few years earlier.  3D you can explain to any low-tech layman--"Watch movies the same way you can in theaters"--but 4K is a bit of a tougher sell to hesitant, tight-fisted audiences:  "It looks better!  On bigger sets!"  
To overcome the first test is the first crucial battle of the war, namely in not making the technology look like a BMW "toy" for conspicuous-consumers with too much disposable income and free time, and trying to make it look like something that would be in every sensible home.  UHD is a format whose very concept depends on the urge to go Bigger Is Better, pretty much a First World Problem which the public can often become a little morally judgmental about.  Especially if they don't have to pay for it.

The second test has been a bit, well, embarrassing.  As a new home-video format is being readied to roll out, most of the licenses for hot, hip, happening first-release titles have to be in current negotiation to include the new-format disk rights before the movie is released, which means mostly new movies from the last year or upcoming summer blockbuster season.  
And while Warner, Sony, Paramount and Fox continue to relicense old dependable genre titles for the new format--especially ones like ID4, Star Trek and the 80's Ghostbusters that can be used to tie into their new summer-'16 followups--the new UHD consumer can already enjoy 4K-upgraded disk releases of Pan, San Andreas, Exodus: Gods & Kings and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in never-before-seen sound and picture clarity.  Er...I pass, thanks?

As for the third test...that's where Sony may have finally tripped.  
Microsoft doesn't make standalone UHD players or 4K Blu-ray disks of the Ghostbusters remake, Sony does.
Up until now, Sony has virtually defined the idea that a format has give its low-tech users a "free taste", by cross-promoting its video software with its game hardware--In the late 90's DVD was still a struggling "toy" for home-theater nuts, until Sony included an adapter to the Playstation 2, and kids who would have never bought laserdisc in their life were snapping up any used DVD disks of Twister and Batman & Robin on discount at Software Etc. just to have something cooler to play.  In the format wars that lasted from 2006 to 2008, the battle between Blu-ray and HDDVD came down to a loyalty battle of hardcore Playstation vs. X-Box gamers (and those who adopted Microsoft's game box for HDDVD were warned of the dreaded "Red Ring of Death", X-Box's guarantee to break down within three years), while the rest of the uninterested mainstream public cracked tired jokes about which format "was sure to win because it had porn".  
Home theater fans who would never think of being associated with "gamerz" bought fast, efficient Playstation 3 consoles when Sony's own first affordable model of standalone Blu-ray hardware, the S360, seemed to have been rushed out with technical flaws and took nearly a half hour to load Blu-ray disk menus.  Had it not been for the PS3, Format War II would have been over in six months, with no winner.

But that was THEN.  Sony today is not quite as interested in giving free samples as it used to be.
As The Digital Bits speculated in its coverage of the gaming headlines, parent-company Sony may be having a bit of irreconcilable differences between two of its hardware divisions:
Sony Consumer Electronics handles the sales of standalone home-theater hardware and movies, Sony Interactive Entertainment handles the consoles and gaming, and it's SCE that's got it's money bet on the horse race.  The two divisions no longer work with an aim for cross-promotion--Hardcore gamer fans, focused on more and more technical quality for their immersive online gaming, jumped on the idea that it had been a, quote, "mistake" for Playstation 3 to be more of an all-media set-top box and Blu/3D player than the accelerated game experience they wanted, and Sony Interactive promoted the technical game speed and graphics when it first rolled out the new-generation model three years ago.  SCE, on the other side, has an entire industry riding on all three aspects of the hardware, players, software titles and screens.  Sony has its stake on consumer interest in the new standalone UHD players as the center of the market--both disk and streaming--and anything that sells one less player is an enemy to that already shaky goal.
Which puts Sony in the position of being a house divided, creating two ultra-niche divisions with no interest in the other, and neither one curious to try...That could be one reason why such houses don't usually stand.  (Or did some tall guy in a hat say that already?)

Microsoft had more than a little stake in the previous format war:  Blu-ray vs. HDDVD was not just about a fancy disk, or whether the cases would be red or blue, but were fighting over the future of the industry--HDDVD supported a MS-based code for their movies, while Blu used a more universal cross-platform variation on MP4.  Even when Sony was dropping the ball on their own Blu format, trying to sell action titles to those same gamers, Disney had the advantage of Pixar and Apple's own Steve Jobs on the board, who gave the studio a very involved interest to make sure Blu won the battle.  Had HDDVD won, Microsoft would have an almost literal monopoly on how all disks and online movies were digitized, and when they didn't get it, may have actually started the whisper-campaign that "Who cares, everyone knows disks are dying anyway!"  If they couldn't have disks, no one could.
But MS doesn't have a stake in this battle.  There's no consumer war being fought between rival developers over one format of UHD versus another, just one war of Interest vs. Apathy.   If Microsoft wins the console war over Sony for 4K customers who want a game-and-disk machine, they don't have any disk line to sell or get to enjoy any particular prize in the home-theater market beyond their usual Popeye-vs.-Bluto game-console rivalry.  
Sony, OTOH, may see the same problem that has hampered every new format:  Customers just plain don't want one more living-room machine until they can see what it does.  Hardware companies sell new formats on the players, and they sell the players on faith, hoping shininess and a big January CES demonstration alone will sell $700-1200 conspicuous purchases.  When hardware players ultimately become the lowest initially-selling item of the format, and take longer than usual to catch on (namely with the people who had to be convinced by other methods), companies usually grab the quickest explanation that will free themselves from blame:  "Guess the public wasn't interested after all!"

4K UHD is already facing its own confused schizophrenia between the hardware companies that want to sell the new movies on a disk format, and the studios that want to sell the new movies on a streaming format, and those who happen to be both trying to sell both.  If Sony has, in fact, cut off its own format to spite its face, the real question isn't about whether gamer kids or home-theater fans lost out--It's about WHERE the company ultimately decides to place the blame when a new line of hard physical-disk players didn't sell as well as the corporate heads imagined they would.  Safe bet they won't be looking in the mirror when they search for a scapegoat.
And that, friends, is no game.

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