Digital Toys Mix Form, Function

LOS ANGELES (05/11/2000) - Digital cameras flashed, mobile phones rang, handhelds beeped, and maybe even a few Game Boys chirped as keynote speaker America Online Inc. President Bob Pittman spoke of convergence at the opening of the Electronic Entertainment Expo here.

And AOL is a picture of convergence. From its pending merger with diverse media mogul Time Warner to its many partnerships, AOL is exploring different facets of entertainment and electronics.

AOL is introducing a new games channel this year, Pittman said almost as an aside. It will feature games from a number of industry partners, such as Electronic Arts, with which AOL signed a major game development deal last year.

The channel will feature online games, with tools to help you find online opponents for real-time play, and will offer some AOL original games. The selection will be broad, for all ages and all backgrounds, Pittman says.

Different Boxes, Different Jobs

Game consoles are yet another box in a collection of consumer boxes whose roles are blurring, Pittman says.

"We have the TV, the story-telling box where we let it do all the talking. With cable, video, and DVD, this box has gotten remarkably convenient," he says.

Other boxes include a mood box (stereo), a communication box (telephone), and a "manage our lives" box (PC), which has changed a side of society that was static for some fifty years, he notes. "People don't use PCs to do anything they haven't done before, but to do the same things easier," he says.

Game vendors want their consoles to be the fifth box, but the boxes are already blending. Pittman likens the situation to a wheel: In the future, the PC will be the hub and the other boxes will be spokes that let us connect to that hub.

"We're not going to turn our TVs into PCs, but it could use some interactivity," he says, which is where consoles and other devices come in.

But the world where this hub exists will require an enormous number of alliances, Pittman says, acknowledging his company's position as a participant in among the biggest of such alliances.

"No one company or no one industry can make this world happen for the consumer," he says. Trusted brands, such as perhaps Time Warner and AOL, will bring consumers the content and services anyplace and anytime.

Games: More Than Glitter

To the game developers and manufacturers in the E3 audience, Pittman suggested that gee-whiz technology shouldn't be the focus of games.

People will look for convenience and trusted brands among games, as they do in any market, according to Pittman.

"Consumers will buy a product that does nothing but save them time," Pittman observes. "The microwave cooks food worse than a conventional oven, but it's much faster." The recent legal hoopla over MP3s and digital music "doesn't show that consumers want to be thieves, it shows that they want to listen to music on their PCs."

PC and Internet use mirrors people's offline lives, allowing them to perform the same activities with greater convenience, he explains. And people will look for brands they trust to conduct those activities.

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