Can Handheld Consoles Break The Non-game Barrier?

[qi:002] The massive success of Nintendo’s cheeky cerebral treadmill, Brain Age, which stayed on Japan’s best-seller list for 34 weeks and has sold over 8.6 million units, has tempted other companies into experimenting with non-games. The fact that older people bought Nintendo’s handheld console, the DS Lite, solely to try out Brain Age, signified a real shift in the potential for growing new revenue.

But can a device that was essentially created as a toy flex enough power to accommodate functions beyond pure entertainment? More importantly — and the underlying question that makes the game-makers tremble — can these new applications drive enough sales from outside of the core gaming group to establish an expanded market for the consoles?

The PSP has, at first blush, the most potential to move beyond games, with built-in Wi-Fi and a media player that also lets users download and play videos, music, and photos. A new slim version is slightly less clunky and has had its RAM upgraded to 64MB, improving the appalling load times for the browser and other applications. All of this would be more impressive, of course, in a world without iPhones, although at $169 the PSP is, comparatively speaking, very affordable.

But what is a non-gamer to do with the device, exactly? Well, in Japan she could pick up My Stylist, a piece of software that is supposed to help a girl pick out her clothes, save her favorite outfits, and organize her closet. Cute idea, I guess, but killer app it is not. And there’s the translation software Talkman, intended to be a travel companion with the ability to bark out phrases to foreigners in their native language. Surely there are more graceful ways to meet handsome boys in strange climes.

The DS Lite has a new experiment, Doko Demo Yoga (Yoga Everywhere), also aimed primarily at women. The idea is that because the console is portable, you can follow the virtual instructor into a variety of poses anywhere you like. Frankly I’m not sure how many women would be psyched to do the old downward-facing dog in their cubicle between phone calls and emails. This, again, is not compelling enough to get a new set of consumers to buy a DS Lite.

But the dream of transforming entertainment is still alive: Jam Sessions is a music-making tool for the DS Lite, as the quirkier Electroplankton was before it. Applications like these may succeed because they tap into the new web 2.0 behavior — consumers of entertainment now have a hand in creating it, saving it, and sharing it. Now if the PSP could host a tool that is a portable MySpace interface or a cheap video editor, that might just be the thing that propels these consoles to the next level.

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