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OUYA's Android-based, hackable game console now official: we chat with designer Yves Behar (update: funded)

A handful of details briefly slipped out about the project earlier, but now it's here: the OUYA, an attempt not just to delve into the cutthroat world of TV game consoles but to try and shift the goal posts. At its heart, the design sounds more like a smartphone than a gaming rig with a quad-core Tegra 3 and 8GB of storage running Android 4.0. The upscale, RF wireless gamepad's standout is a built-in trackpad for playing mobile games alongside the familiar sticks and buttons -- clever, though not entirely new. But with completely open hardware and software, an emphasis on free-to-play gaming and an all-important $99 price, the system is a gamble by a handful of game industry luminaries that at least a subset of players are frustrated with the status quo enough to want a real break. Read on for the full details, including a Kickstarter project as well as added details from our chat with OUYA (and Jambox) designer Yves Behar.

The emphasis is on absolute openness, and that starts even with the hardware: a button on the console pops open the top and grants access to the insides. Ordinary screws keep the overall enclosure (and the controller) shut, and there's even documentation for the circuit boards. Ouya also wants the software to be truly open, as it's running Android 4.0 with an unlocked bootloader. Modifying the OS won't even void the warranty; if there's ever a version of CyanogenMod for the Ouya, it won't spoil your chances of getting a replacement unit. While the 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 onboard are primarily for Internet access and peripherals, an SD card slot and a USB 2.0 port are as much there to foster the community's development as to leave room for more storage and future peripherals.

If you're an everyday gamer, the interface will be simple, if somewhat familiar. Think of it as a stripped-down version of the Xbox 360's fall 2011 Dashboard update. That might be a positive for some would-be owners: even as Microsoft's current front-end is seemingly bent on promoting everything but games, the Ouya's creators are shooting for a games-first philosophy. About the only extra so far is built-in support for streaming tournaments and other game session videos, although the Android nature of the console should allow loading third-party apps downloaded outside of a missing-by-necessity Google Play.

It gets more interesting with development and the game sales model. Every Ouya will come with the development kit and debug console, and the early interface goes so far as to show the number of people making games, not just those playing them. Unlike the stereotypical license-heavy console model, there's no up-front fees. Meanwhile, the company not only isn't requiring a minimum price for Ouya games, it's forbidding them -- every game has to start off with a free download. It's only when a developer introduces a paid strategy (in-app purchases, subscriptions and beyond) that Ouya steps in asking for a 30 percent cut of the proceeds. As core creator and former IGN veteran Julie Uhrman tells Engadget, the sense is that gamers feel "cheated" by $60 games which demand "bigger and bigger budgets" to support; a basic free-to-play requirement lowers the barrier almost completely.

The operation certainly has an optimistic, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom view of the gaming community, but it's at least going in with some experience under its belt. We've mentioned Yves Behar, whose design chops guide both the hardware and the software, but Ouya is also taking on Xbox co-creator Ed Fries as an advisor. Investors include the founders of Digg (Jay Adelson), Flixster (Joe Greenstein) and Jawbone (Hosain Rahman), while game developers like Minecraft maker Markus "Notch" Persson, former Interplay head (and now inXile founder) Brian Fargo, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner and a slew of well-known indie mobile game developers have thrown their weight behind the concept.

Ouya's Androidbased, eminently hackable game console becomes official, we have a chat with Yves Behar

We had the chance to chat with Behar about the console before the big reveal, and we get the distinct impression that the Ouya is as much a sincere personal focus as an attempt to give that professional polish to what could have been a very frugal box. While he can see some tangential connections to Nintendo's GameCube in aiming for the "playfulness" of a very simple design, the real goal with Ouya is something that's very "openable" and embodies the philosophy towards the OS sitting inside. Behar also admits getting annoyed at the cheap-feeling, overly light gamepads of current consoles -- the Ouya controller is meant to behave "like a high-end knife," he says, with weight and responsiveness.

The software? It's "humble," according to the designer, and lets the games take the center stage. Android doesn't have a great reputation in gaming, but that's not Behar's experience to date. It's "relatively liberating" for him with an open structure that makes it easier to implement top-level decisions regarding the interface. He can't vouch for the games themselves, which aren't in his wheelhouse.

The controller is meant to behave "like a high-end knife," with weight and responsiveness

Compared to the Jambox, the Ouya hasn't necessarily been any harder to develop, Behar argues. Even though he obviously didn't have to design an on-screen interface for Jawbone's Bluetooth speaker, the industry veteran sees certain "unique constraints" that were in the Jambox that aren't in the Ouya console, and vice versa. Imagine the finnicky design issues that inherently define a speaker like the Jambox, such as getting a chassis that carries the sound properly, where the Ouya is almost literally hands-off outside of the controller. Behar would "for sure" tackle the Ouya, or something like it, again. Game consoles are part of a space that "hasn't been disrupted in a long time," he informs us.

The company's main challenge, apart from convincing gamers to drop (or more likely complement) their Playstations, Wiis and Xboxes, will be getting the console to the finish line. Uhrman and crew have skipped venture capital so far and are relying on private investments as well as a $950,000 Kickstarter project to get Ouya funded. Meeting that Kickstarter goal is vital to completing the system: if they don't reach the former, they quite possibly won't achieve the latter. But if Ouya gets the all-clear from early adopters and investors, there's a chance that the TV video game industry might see its first viable fourth platform in years, at an impulse-purchase $99 price and without the usual red tape that keeps indie game developers from finding their audience. That combination may well amount to an idea worth exploring.

Update: And in matter of just hours the project has surpassed its goal. You'll find more info by clicking here.