A new set-top box was introduced today that offers the usual video streaming capabilities along with apps for popular services like Twitter and comes in under $100.
That might not be very exciting so far, but this one also plays games. Even still, that’s a little unimpressive; it seems as though everyone from Amazon (AMZN) to Google (GOOG) is working on a cheap set-top box for casual gaming. And we’re waiting for the big shoe to drop: Now that Apple (AAPL) supports physical controllers in iOS 7, it’s just a matter of time before the Apple TV morphs into a video game console to take on the likes of Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox and Sony’s (SNE) Playstation.
What makes this new piece of hardware special is that it’s made by Sony, it runs games for the PS Vita handheld game system and it acts as an extender for Sony’s upcoming Playstation 4 console (allowing gamers to play PS4 games on more than just the connected television).
That’s right, with one piece of hardware, Sony just preemptively stole a bunch of Apple’s thunder, smacked the Xbox One (something it’s been getting quite good at), kicked poor Nintendo (NTDOY) while it’s down and breathed some new life into its ailing PS Vita handheld business.
I sure didn’t see that one coming.
The PS Vita TV is an unassuming looking box, about the size of a deck of cards. But that simple appearance belies some powerful internals. It has a cartridge slot that lets users play Vita video games and also accepts Vita memory cards (for playing downloaded or saved games). It also plays PSOne Classic games and PSP games. It uses a standard Sony DualShock 3 wireless controller that any current Sony PS3 user already owns — Sony will also sell the PS Vita TV in a bundle with a controller and memory card for $50 more.
While it won’t be able to match Apple (or the various Android game consoles’) selection or price for games, the PS Vita TV will offer access to a considerable library of proven Sony titles (including franchise games that are unlikely to be released as mobile apps), along with any supported cartridges users already own.
And the hardware — several generations deep and optimized for gaming — means the gameplay and graphics will likely blow away anything the Android boxes and AppleTV (which rely on mobile apps aimed at “casual” players) are capable of. The integration with Sony’s tried-and-true DualShock 3 controller is also likely to provide a superior gaming experience.
But what if you already own a PS Vita and want to play against someone else?
The PS Vita TV will support multiplayer gaming, acting as the second Vita console. Basing the system on the PS Vita should help boost sales of the portable console, which is already seeing a bit of a surge thanks to cross-support built in to the Playstation 4. The prospect of the set-top box and its living room audience should help encourage developers to release games for the platform too — also good for the Vita handheld.
Streaming video is pretty much expected of anything that plugs into a TV these days, and Sony’s little box does that as well. Sony has announced support for Hulu as well as its own Video Unlimited and Japanese services such as Tsutaya TV. The device also runs apps designed for the PS Vita, giving access to additional functions such as a Twitter client.
The feature that’s going to drive Microsoft nuts and be another blow to Nintendo — whose sputtering Wii U touts its unique ability to play games in a different room than the console — will be the PS Vita TV’s ability to act as an extender for the Playstation 4. If the TV is being used for something else, no problem — you can play the PS4 games on a screen any other screen by connecting it to the PS Vita TV.
The PS Vita TV looks to be one of the smartest moves Sony has made in some time. After years of losing market share to mobile gaming, the company has chosen to take the battle to Android and iOS as they enter the living room — a completely different strategy from Nintendo’s price-slashing 2DS handheld.
Before anyone gets too excited, the PS Vita TV is only going to be released in Japan on November 14. Although it seems like a no-brainer for Sony to release the device in the U.S., it has yet to announce specifics for such a move. I suspect that might have something to do with the video services which are currently largely specific to the Japanese market. Sony’s going to need to get Netflix (NFLX) support to compete with existing media streamers here.
Once this thing is released in U.S., expect the battle for the living room to get even more interesting than it was shaping up to be. And that’s saying something.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.