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Dark Glasses

The post-E3 war of words over 3D glasses reveals the true weakness of Sony's position

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Nintendo's unveiling of the 3DS was going to provoke an unseemly spat with Sony. The key advantage of Nintendo's 3D technology, after all, is that it requires no glasses - which means that in order for the company to blow its trumpet, it must by association knock the kind of glasses-required 3D on which Sony is presently making a very large wager.

The fairly apparent bitterness emanating from the Sony camp over this issue is entirely understandable. After all, it's not just the PlayStation division which is hoping for an upswing in its fortunes from the consumer adoption of 3D - the firm's television business, too, is hoping that 3D will be its white knight after many years of tough trading, and Sony Pictures would love to see Blu-Ray sales picking up as 3D versions of popular movies arrive at retail.

As such, for a big competitor like Nintendo to be making sniffy comments about 3D glasses is somewhat upsetting for Sony - and it stings all the more because of the sympathetic coverage which Nintendo's viewpoint has received, both from the press and from consumers.

The reality, however, is that Nintendo's comments make little difference to the uphill struggle which Sony faces in encouraging early adopters to make the leap to 3D. Everyone who has seen PS3 games running in 3D has been wowed by the experience - myself included. Games and 3D technology go together like a hand in a glove; it's a vastly better experience than any 3D movie thus far, and makes a serious difference to the level of immersion in the game world.

However, even after being amazed and impressed by the technology, everyone walks away acutely conscious of how difficult it's going to be to get consumers playing these games. The technology is vastly expensive, with the glasses themselves costing between £60 and £100 for a pair - arguably an even greater stumbling block than the price of the TV sets themselves.

Marketing 3D is incredibly difficult, too - how do you advertise something the whole point of which is that normal TV sets can't display it? An enormous, vastly expensive campaign focused on widespread consumer sampling and demonstrations is Sony's only hope on that front, and even then, the expense of the technology means that it will remain the realm of early adopters for at least the next two or three years.

So, Sony faces enormous challenges with 3D, and Nintendo's mirthful mockery of 3D glasses isn't really helping, but is hardly the company's biggest headache, either. In fact, I'd argue that it isn't really Nintendo's comments on 3D that are really stinging Sony right now. No, the pain Sony feels in the wake of E3 is altogether simpler - it's the sense that they've been here before, and still haven't quite learned the lessons of the past.

Six years ago, Nintendo and Sony both turned up at E3 with new consoles in tow. Sony had a sleek, expensive and technologically brilliant system which essentially shoehorned the all-conquering PS2 console into a handheld, replete with advanced media functionality and a fantastic, bright, wide-format screen. Nintendo had a cheap and cheerful plastic toy, sporting peculiarities such as a pair of low-resolution screens and a stylus-driven touchscreen.

Nintendo's share price promptly crashed, which is worth bearing in mind next time someone starts giving you a dull lecture on the wisdom of crowds. As it turned out, the crowds were clueless - as we all now know, Nintendo's low-tech solution turned out to be the most successful hardware platform of the decade, while Sony's PSP, although by no means a failure, finds itself somewhat lost in the wilderness.

A couple of years later, of course, the same scenario repeated itself with the Wii and the PS3 - but with the subsequent departure of Ken Kutaragi, whose engineering background had led Sony Computer Entertainment down a technology-obsessed path, there was a widespread belief that the company would never make this kind of mistake again.

Yet Sony's love of cutting edge technology continues to burn, undiminished by the rocky path of recent years. From some perspectives, of course, that's fantastic. Many gamers are ardent fans of cutting-edge tech, obsessed by frame rates and visual fidelity, delighted by games and hardware which push the boundaries of technological achievement. Sony is their kind of company; they are Sony's kind of consumers.

They are, however, only a fraction of the market - arguably even a dwindling fraction, at a time when more and more developers are willing to make the formerly lunatic assertion that "graphics technology no longer sells games".

Faced with that, how does a company whose whole history is based on being on the bleeding edge of technology adapt? Nintendo turned up at E3 with a successor for the DS which is low-cost, low-tech and yet laden with extraordinary, headline-grabbing features. Sony, meanwhile, touts technologies costing thousands of pounds - and its own handheld effort, the PSP, languishes in no-man's land, its most recent iteration, the PSPgo, being little other than a costly and embarrassing failure for the company.

Sony executives would argue, undoubtedly, that what they showed off at E3 and similar events over the past year is the future of home entertainment - and they're absolutely right. Sony's technology is the future - 3D in the home isn't a pipe dream, it's a technology which is on its way, and Sony is on the vanguard of that movement.

If Sony feels aggrieved at being outmaneuvered, it's not because its technology isn't the future - it's because its technology isn't the present. The present is what Nintendo is very good at. It creates devices which are cheap to make right now, rather than betting the farm on cost reductions in three years' time. They're easy to develop for, because their power is familiar to developers. They're easy to sell, because their price points fit well with the market. Yet through clever selection of technology and design elements, they remain exciting enough to grab headlines and wow consumers.

This is the lesson which Sony still has to implement across its entire business. It's great that the company can show off future technology - there's a real thrill at seeing the latest fruits of the labours of Sony's world-class engineering teams. Its rivals, however, have perfected the art of creating products that fit the market as it stands today. Nintendo's scoffing at Sony's 3D efforts doesn't hit home simply because they're criticising the unpopular 3D glasses. It scores a bullseye on Sony's true weak point, which is that it remains too focused on the cutting edge of technology, and often loses sight of what consumers really want: entertaining products at competitive price points.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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