Jan 9, 2009

Tech - A P.G rated Second Life

Josh Quittner

The weather outside is frightful, but video games are delightful. So lately, I've been cocooning inside with Sony's PlayStation Home, and I think it's the most realistic-looking implementation yet of a 3-D world. The 17 million or so owners of the pricey PlayStation 3--which costs $400--can download a free beta version via Sony's PlayStation Network, which connects the game consoles on the Web so users can play one another

Home is Sony's ambitious (albeit boringly named) attempt to create an online place for gamers to hang out in realistic virtual environments. So far, that includes a mall, a town plaza, a bowling alley, an arcade and apartments. Sony is betting Home can generate new revenue, since gamers will be able to try--then buy--all kinds of video games, movies, music and other offerings from Sony's many business partners.

After downloading the software to your PlayStation, you log in and create an avatar, which you pilot using your PlayStation controller. Much like the Wii system, your avatar's features are customizable--within limits. Want your character to be 8 ft. (2.4 m) tall? Forget it. Humans are sized like the real deal. No really enormous noses either. Your character can't even be as fat as your average tech-gossip blogger, since only the slightest of beer guts is permitted in Home. And if you want to create a female avatar, she's got to look like something from Playboy, circa 1968. Not that that's a bad thing for some of us, although my 11-year-old daughter thought the bustiness was ridiculous.

Home's aesthetic is Larry Flynt meets Lake Wobegon: all the men are strong, the women big-breasted and the children--well, there are no children. Just shorter adults.

Your avatar can fluidly walk or run from place to place. A drop-down menu lets you dance everything from the robot to sorta salsa. You can text other Homies or talk via any USB microphone.

While you can clothe your character in free off-the-rack stuff, Sony clearly hopes you'll spend real money to buy virtual outfits from the likes of Diesel, which will have a store in the virtual mall. Sony has a number of partner relationships already in place. You'll be able to buy furniture from Ligne Roset to outfit your apartment, quaff virtual Red Bull or watch a movie trailer (and maybe the whole thing someday) at the virtual cineplex.

Sony is hoping Home will breathe some life into its flagging video-game division, which, according to Business Week, lost about $3.8 billion over the past two years. It sure can't help Sony that the latest PlayStation console costs nearly twice as much as Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's adorable Wii.

While I know Home is still a work in progress, Sony ought to lighten up and give its users tools to build things, as the more adult-oriented virtual world Second Life has done. The past five years have been all about putting the users in control, which is especially smart in a place many people gather. To succeed, Sony needs to understand that an avatar's virtual Home ought to be his castle--not just Sony's mall.

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