SAN FRANCISCO--Sony is finally getting its own virtual reality.
As online virtual worlds like Second Life, There.com and others continue to gain in popularity, Sony on Wednesday unveiled its own version of an immersive 3D social space, known as Home and created exclusively for the PlayStation 3.
At a press briefing in advance of his keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference here Wednesday, Phil Harrison, Sony Computer Entertainment's president of worldwide studios, publicly showed off Home for the first time, explaining how it fits into the PS3 ecosystem and what Sony is calling the "Game 3.0" era.
The service appears to be aimed at giving consumers a new reason to choose the PS3--an especially important move for Sony given that recent market numbers from analyst firm The NPD Group showed the PS3 in fourth place among consoles in January, trailing Nintendo's Wii, its own PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox 360.
Part of the problem for Sony has been PS3 shortages, as well as a price tag--$599 for a top-of-the-line PS3--deemed too steep by many consumers, particularly because of what some see as a lackluster roster of available games.
Essentially, Home is a 3D, avatar-based social environment available for free to users of the PlayStation 3 network. The idea is to give users a way to connect in a multimedia space and interact with the various forms of media available on the PS3.
Home will be a free download. It will go into a large-scale beta in April and will launch publicly this fall.
While Home has some innovative features--most notably the ability to watch high-definition quality video available through the PS3 network--it's strongly reminiscent of virtual worlds like Second Life, only deeply scaled back.
Home participants will be able to meet other members, most likely in a main public area known as the "Central Lobby," and communicate through text, audio or video chatting. They will also be able to pipe in--either in public or private theaters--the latest movies or TV shows available through the PS3 network, as well as their own user-created videos.
Further, users will be able to infinitely customize their avatars. And each member will be given a small (and free) private space, somewhat like an apartment, that he or she can customize per his or her own tastes.
A main selling point of Second Life is that users create nearly all the content, with almost no limits, making for an environment that's almost infinitely extensible. By contrast, Home appears to be a much more controlled space.
Harrison told CNET News.com that while users will be able to design their own clothing and avatars, as well as other content--be it furniture, vehicles or the like--Sony will moderate anything meant for public spaces, most likely to ensure that Home remains a family friendly space. Content meant for private spaces will not be moderated, he added.
But maintaining such control over content creation means devoting large amounts of time and manpower to the vetting process, and that can translate to a significant delay in the approval of content, as well as minimized user creativity.
Still, Sony may not want Home users to have that much control over what they create.
"In Second Life, it's all about user-created content," Harrison said. "We're providing (a lot of content ourselves). You can only do that with a defined platform...We will deliver what users want in an entertaining way."
In addition, Harrison said that despite some obvious similarities, Home is not a Second Life knockoff.
"We've been working on Home for about two-and-a-half years," he said. "So we're absolutely aware of other avatar-based (environments), but we're taking a different approach."
He said users would be able to create some forms of their own content, though he did not specify what kinds. He indicated that, like in Second Life, There.com and other virtual worlds, users would be able to conduct transactions in exchange for some form of payment.
That ability has led, in Second Life and There.com, at least, to robust virtual economies that yield real-world profits.
It's not clear what kind of businesses Home users will be allowed to run, but Harrison did say he could imagine, for example, a user running an interior design business catering to other Home members.
And while it's evident Sony doesn't expect Home to be a major cash cow, there are some potential revenue sources.
Those, Harrison said, would include sales of in-world goods; in-world advertising (Home allows for high-quality, realistic advertising); and business-to-business services like sponsorship opportunities.
For its part, Second Life publisher Linden Lab seemed pleased with Sony's news.
"I think this completely legitimizes our space," said Catherine Smith, Linden Lab's director of marketing. "It's great to see competitors coming in. A couple years ago we were considered crazy" for building a user-created environment. "I think this shows that we're doing the right thing."
At its pre-briefing, Sony also unveiled an upcoming PS3 game, LittleBigPlanet, from game studio Media Molecule. The game lets players enjoy a great deal of control over creating game levels, and then playing them.
LittleBigPlanet has some elements of Electronic Arts' much-anticipated game, Spore, in that players can essentially create the universe in which they play and then watch it evolve.