LAS VEGAS — Personal computers are as commonplace as oxygen at the International CES. PC sales have been plunging for the past couple of years. Amid all the self-driving cars, curved television screens, and 3-D printers at the consumer electronics show, it is hard to work up much enthusiasm for the old-fashioned PC.
Unless you play games on them. DFC Intelligence, a research firm that tracks the industry, estimates that people worldwide spent $22 billion on PC video game software last year. So major game companies keep making PC versions of the biggest hits — “Call of Duty: Ghosts” and “Grand Theft Auto V” — and PC gamers keep buying them.
And technology innovators have continued conceiving PC gaming enhancements. Among the most interesting is the Shield, a $250 hand-held game machine from Nvidia Corp. You’ve seen the Nvidia brand on many PCs; the company is a leading maker of the graphics processing cards that generate those beautiful 3-D images. With the Shield, Nvidia is taking on the popular Nintendo 2DS hand-held game device, and of course all our tablets and phones.
The Shield is a much bulkier device than its rivals. Shaped like an Xbox game controller, it has a bright, sharp, flip-up video screen. It runs Google Inc.’s Android operating system and of course plays the usual Android games.
But the Shield also lets the user play PC games. Just connect the device to a home computer through the household Wi-Fi network and a Shield user can play a round of “Battlefield 4” while lounging in the backyard.
Even more daring is a new service called Grid, which for now is available only to Shield users in Northern California. Grid is a cloud-based service for PC gaming that works something like Netflix. Never mind buying a copy of “Call of Duty” for your home PC. Just connect your Shield to the Grid service and play the game whenever, or wherever, you like.
It is a great idea; alas, it has flopped once. A startup called OnLive tried it a few years ago but consumers did not buy it. Good to see Nvidia take another crack.
Meanwhile Valve Corp., one of the top vendors of PC game software, is preparing a new kind of hardware. Valve runs Steam, an online gaming community with 65 million users worldwide. Up to now they have happily played on their Windows or Mac machines, enjoying the razor-sharp precision you get by using a mouse and keyboard instead of a game controller. But they would love to get at the giant television screen in the living room.
For them, Valve is working with a host of PC makers to create Steam Machines, a new generation of game computers that will start hitting the market this year. Steam Machines run a modified Linux operating system and will range from dirt-simple $500 devices to $6,000 monsters for the most devout fanatics. Steam has developed an Xbox-like controller that brilliantly simulates keyboard and mouse controls. The prototype I tested is now my favorite game controller of all time.
Steam officials told me that the world’s top game software companies will soon be writing versions of their games for the Steam Machines. But in the meantime, a user can link a Steam Machine to a gaming PC, and play “Grand Theft Auto” while lying on the couch, instead of leaning over a desk.
The weirdest PC gaming accessory here has to be the Virtuix Omni, a $449 device that goes on sale later this year. The Omni resembles the exercise treadmill you just bought as a New Year’s resolution, but is designed to let a player control PC action games by running and rotating his body.
The platform has a low-friction surface, and comes with a set of compatible shoes. The user climbs aboard and straps in to keep from falling. Now the user can walk or run on the slick surface. The Omni attaches to a gaming PC, which interprets the user’s footsteps as movements inside the game. To chase enemy soldiers in a “Call of Duty” game, you would not press a key or nudge a joystick. Just start running.
Virtuix raised $150,000 to start building the Omni on Kickstarter; gamers sent in donations at a rate of over $1,000 a minute. I did not get to try the device, but after all those heavy holiday meals, it looked like just the sort of fun I need. And it proves that PC gaming is in remarkably good health.