Since we are already talking about the next Xbox, and the new console generation should arrive in the 2013 time frame, we welt it is a good idea to take a closer look at the current generation of devices and their future outlook. It is simply stunning to see how powerful and promising especially the Xbox 360 and PS3 were at the time of their introduction and how much the innovation of the past and next years could change the feature set and require huge bets by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Here are our seven front-runners.
1. Thin Console
When the PS3 was introduced, it was largely seen as a supercomputer for the living room, with a theoretical raw processing power of up to 2.36 TFlops. Even four years later, there aren't many games that actually use the entire potential of the PS3. In the not too distant future, an Xbox 360 or a PS3 may look like a dinosaur from an ancient time that hosted processing capability in the wrong place.
It is more and more apparent that the model of Onlive is going to be the future. We are getting used to online and on-demand content delivery through services such as Netflix. Onlive is doing the same with video games - especially with a new plan to make games accessible for a $10 fee per month. We already have shown that we do not necessarily care about physical ownership of media anymore, if we know that content is always accessible in a fast and convenient way. If we can access games online anywhere and anytime, why would we download them and not play online right away?
If you think about it, a thin client / cloud gaming approach could also solve other problems consoles are criticized for: It really would not matter what hardware you have at home as long as your service provider upgrades and provides the best possible experience. Especially Nvidia and likes to criticize console gaming today and its old graphics technology. Cloud gaming would give gamers the ability to always stay up to date.
2. Merged Entertainment System
The future game console will further expand into the more types of media. Not only will it be the interface to games and on-demand video, but it may also interface to advanced TV and audio consumption. In the long run, gaming will be just one aspect for an entertainment console as the device will merge various set top boxes and entertainment systems that tie into stationary and portable devices, such as home PCs and smartphones. Console manufacturers have vastly more decisions to make with the next generation of devices than it was the case five years ago. A game console will have to pull content from devices as well as supply it. Microsoft will, without doubt, connect its smartphones much closer with the next Xbox 360 and we are already seeing Android Apps that use the PS3 as image or video interface. Expect this trend to continue on a fast pace: Imagine your smartphone to be capable of accessing a video game through the cloud in the same way you access it at home on your TV. This may not work for all games, but having your entertainment library with you all the time has tremendous value.
3. Human Controller Interface
There is no doubt in my mind that the future controller of game consoles will be your body movements and your voice. Microsoft is leading the way with Kinect - the technology will need years to be flushed out, but it isn't terribly difficult to predict that the human interface is here to stay.
Higher resolution cameras will drive the adoption of much smoother and more sophisticated usage models that feel as natural as Microsoft promised it for Kinect. Clearly, Kinect is not the technology that fits all types of games. There is a good chance that the good old motion controller will stay for a while until a camera and AI system can detect movements in detail that is comparable to today's controllers, but the days of this technology is clearly numbered and this next generation of controller technology should be exciting.
4. APU Horsepower
It is too early to predict which processors the next consoles will use, but it is clear that the human interface will require extremely powerful processors that will integrate CPUs and GPUs. The added processing horsepower will lead the way to more power-efficient consoles and enable much richer menus at the same time. We should also be in the range of processing capability when facial recognition is combined with voice recognition to improve the accuracy of vocal data input. Several years ago, Intel laid out a vision in which a sensor could track lip movements and use the data to improve voice recognition. This could be the first time voice recognition is not just a secondary, but also a primary way for communicating with an electronic device.
5. Hybrid Data Storage
The time of hundreds of gigabytes of storage space for your game console may be coming to an end. In a reasonable cloud-computing model, you could be storing your personal media data, including images and music online and you would not need a ridiculous amount of local storage space.
For the sake of power consumption and mass market appeal, it seems reasonable to assume that future game consoles will drop hard drives and leverage Flash storage as this chip-based technology becomes much more affordable. In 2013, 256 GB of flash storage should cost not much more than a 320 GB hard drive today.
Could you get rid of discs entirely? Possibly. But 2013 is too early in my opinion. There are plenty of DVDs and there will be lots of Blu-ray discs - as well as older games. Dropping a disc drive entirely would alienate the customer base and is not feasible just yet. All console manufacturers will need at least at least one transitionary platform in which the use of online media is highly promoted and the customer base is prepared for transition.
If the disc drive, in fact, will be dropped, it is more likely that Microsoft will jump right to online media as the company has repeatedly said that it will go directly from the DVD to Online media. We would guess that this move will happen as soon as there is a Netflix that has much more content available and can effectively replace the DVD/Blu-ray player.
7. Lower Power Consumption, Prices
Remember the $599 price tag of the PS3 in 2006? Those days are over. While the next generation of game consoles will be much more capable than this generation, it will be targeted at a much greater audience and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo will go after overlapping markets. A thin client that is tied to subscription fees should allow console makers to offer a future game console for much less money and hit subsidized price points of less than $200 right away.
We should not forget that those power monsters of today do not make much sense anymore. An architecture that uses APUs, flash storage and far less graphics horsepower should be nearly silent and consume a fraction of the power today's PS3s and Xboxes are pulling out of the wall.