Switched On: E3, Screen Two

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On E3, Screen Two

More Info

Particularly since the rise of laptops and their ability to be used in the living room near a TV, consumers have been engaged with multiple screens simultaneously. In those early days, many of which occurred before the consumer-friendly Web, people were even more likely to tend to tasks unrelated to what was on the tube (which, back then, actually was a tube). As standards such as WiFi, DLNA and automatic content recognition develop, though, the use of second screens have the potential to form tighter links with what's happening on TV. At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, the three major home console companies all showed off their approach to bringing home video games and other content further beyond a single display.

The Integrator: Nintendo

Nintendo has the longest and most successful history in portable gaming to complement its long string of home consoles. In a sense, it is also the company with the longest history in multi-screen programming, having guided developers to taking advantage of the two screens on the Nintendo DS and its successors. But the forthcoming Wii U's GamePad represents a new level of second-screen integration for a home console and Nintendo used E3 to show off not only the developer support pledged for the Wii's successor, but how at least some of them are taking advantage of the second screen.

The GamePad has two main things going for it. Its inclusion with every Wii U ensures that developers can count on it being there, at least for one of the players. Also, the size and resolution will be consistent across every Wii U. Like the 3DS and the Wii before it, developers will be somewhat challenged to optimize their games for the GamePad without jeopardizing gameplay mechanics too much on other platforms. But much of the touchscreen trickery they have dabbled in on mobile platforms should be useful in developing for Nintendo's screen play.

The Pollinator: Sony

Beyond a brief flirtation with the minimal LCD of the PocketStation, Sony has long played up the PlayStation's role in conjunction with that of its corporate sibling as a legendary electronics provider. That link, though, had little direct product influence until the launch of the Blu-ray-equipped PS3 and the more recent 3D PlayStation television. On the smaller screen side, Sony is reaching out to support PlayStation titles on multiple screens -- including non-Sony devices -- via its PlayStation Mobile (nee PlayStation Suite) initiative. At E3, it announced that HTC will be the first third-party hardware company to sign up.

But its real two-screen play is its own PlayStation Vita, which will be capable of cross-play with select games when paired with a PlayStation 3. As with Nintendo's Wii U GamePad, the interaction between the Vita and PS3 will be focused mostly on games. Unlike the GamePad, however, the Vita is not only a separate purchase, but a pricey one that few would ever consider unless they had a penchant for its mobile entertainment muscle. Still, Sony stands by the value of offering developers opportunities for an optionally enhanced experience; the PlayStation purveyors would hope that the Vita is to the Wii U's GamePad what Move has been to the original Wii Remote.

The Aggregator: Microsoft

There's neither a new home console (Wii U) nor a portable one (PlayStation Vita) that relates to Microsoft SmartGlass effort. In fact, it does pretty well without (and with) Microsoft's Kinect device. But SmartGlass is the broadest multi-screen initiative to come out of the major home console vendors, both in terms of the range of possibilities as well as the number of supported devices. Indeed, up until now, home consoles have only slowly forged links with other parts of their own ecosystems; SmartGlass, in contrast, embraces all of them.

SmartGlass is a generalized second-screen technology that can support a wide array of second screens, including smartphones that run Windows Phone, iOS and Android and tablets that support Windows 8, iOS and Android. Contrary to its name, though, the product that arranges all the routing among these scenarios is not a piece of glass at all but Microsoft's Kinect console. Microsoft has shown off a wide range of two-screen scenarios, including GamePad-like touchscreen maneuvers (albeit without the GamePad's physical joysticks and buttons), the old standby of resuming a movie watched on a tablet or smartphone up on a TV, enabling controls for its forthcoming Internet Explorer for Xbox, and second-screen video programming.

Microsoft could win big by keeping the price of two-screen interaction low using high-quality devices that are rapidly penetrating their target market.

While Microsoft is seeking to maximize the popularity of SmartGlass (and perhaps notch up a bit of goodwill) by supporting the main rivals to its mobile OS, it's ironic to see the company, which has decried the variation among Android devices, now seek to convince both game and video content developers that they should support such devices. Here, Microsoft has its work cut out for it as services such as HBO Go (which was offered as a demo example) today eschew most Android tablets even for single-screen use.

Still, if it can manage this feat, Microsoft could win big by keeping the price of two-screen interaction low using high-quality devices that are rapidly penetrating their target market. And while it might cede some ground to Nintendo and Sony by leaving behind physical buttons on the second screen, that tradeoff is one that has been successful for the company in pitching Kinect versus the Wii Remote and Sony's Move controller.

The End-Game

It wouldn't at all be surprising to see Sony adopt its own take on a general SmartGlass-like approach.

Of the three competitors, Nintendo is the only one that has staked the future of its home console business on a second-screen experience and so we can expect the company to make the strongest case for its use among game developers. The consistency and prevalence of the GamePad among Wii U buyers will help with this effort as will Nintendo's tendency to support its own platforms with big franchises. Microsoft's general approach also has its merits, particularly for video applications, although it might become cumbersome to juggle both a smartphone and particularly a tablet along with a traditional two-handed game controller; perhaps SmartGlass will be more of a factor in Kinect-driven games.

But while Sony's approach with the Vita may be the least enticing to developers from a pure cross-ownership perspective, it wouldn't at all be surprising to see Sony adopt its own take on a general SmartGlass-like approach, particularly for video entertainment. Indeed, the company is surely looking beyond the remote control capabilities in its tablets today to consider two-screen video tactics with its own, and perhaps other TVs, without having to go through the PlayStation.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.