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Originally published October 8, 2012 at 8:50 AM | Page modified October 8, 2012 at 3:08 PM

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Nintendo looks to be on cutting edge again

Seattle Times technology columnist

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The video game slump is built into the industry release schedules. Everyone who wants ... MORE
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At first, you might think Nintendo is flat-out crazy.

The company is launching a new $300 game console amid the biggest slump in video-game sales in years.

It’s also taking on Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon.com and everyone else selling new Web tablets this holiday season.

The defining feature of Nintendo’s new Wii U is its GamePad controller — a wireless, touch-screen tablet with a 6.2-inch diagonal screen.

But that’s not challenging enough, apparently. As Facebook surpasses 1 billion users, Nintendo also is launching a new social network for the Wii U, which goes on sale Nov. 18.

Remember, though, that people also scratched their heads when Nintendo released the first Wii and its unusual motion-sensing controllers back in 2006.

That earlier Wii never won over the hard-core gamers, but the company still sold 96 million of the consoles and more than 800 million Wii games. The system made video games more accessible and physical, dramatically increasing their appeal and audience. Microsoft and Sony soon added motion-sensing controllers to their game consoles.

After spending time with executives at Nintendo of America’s gleaming new headquarters in Redmond and getting a demonstration of the latest Wii U features, I think Nintendo may have done it again.

I haven’t spent enough time yet with the console to be sure, but I think the Wii U has the potential to be equally transformative — partly with games, but mostly with home entertainment funneled through the console.

In addition to playing full-fidelity games, the Wii U is designed to be an easy, fun and engaging portal to live TV and online video. This capability, dubbed Nintendo TV, looks like the Wii U’s killer app.

Perhaps most significant, the system also previews what to expect from the next generation of video consoles arriving over the next year.

With the traditional game business under pressure from mobile and online games and new Web services consuming more of our free time, console makers have recast themselves as entertainment companies. Their systems have evolved into gateways to most everything you could want on your TV.

Starting with the Wii U, the next generation of consoles will be designed from the start to fill this broader role in the home, while also powering the most advanced games.

If they’re successful, these systems will be a daily part of your life, whether you’re playing games or not.

“The way that would say it is Nintendo TV is certainly going to be something that every member of the family picks up and engages in at least once a day,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Redmond-based Nintendo of America.

“If that helps them get more comfortable with the GamePad, and in the end adds to more games being played, then that’s great,” he said. “But fundamentally, it’s part of the overall proposition of games, TV, plus social.”

Nintendo’s Zach Fountain demonstrated the setup for me.

When you first connect the system to your TV, it syncs up with your cable, satellite or antenna setup. It also connects with video streaming and rental services, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.com.

Then the Wii U GamePad becomes the ultimate universal remote control for your TV. Notably, the system includes a full TV guide displaying broadcast shows available to you via cable or antenna, plus an infrared system for changing the channel and controlling the volume on your TV set.

The GamePad’s touch-screen can display a keypad, for searching out shows and movies, or sending messages to friends over Nintendo’s network or via Twitter or Facebook.

To encourage these conversations, Nintendo will stream highlighted scenes from the show to the GamePad, so users can comment on a particular passage or something that caught their eye.

The pad also can be used to play a game or watch a streaming video while another show is being displayed on the TV screen.

Lots of devices connect TVs to online services, and increasingly TVs connect to them directly. It’s been a capability of the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii for years.

But it’s still the early days. Only about 10 percent of U.S. homes are streaming video to a TV set, according to research firm NPD.

One reason is that people still mostly watch broadcast TV, despite all the buzz around services such as Netflix.

Another reason is that the options for streaming video to your TV are still incomplete. Cable boxes handle TV but won’t connect you to Netflix or Amazon. Streaming video adapters don’t work with live TV broadcasts. Web-connected TVs receive both live and streaming video but their software isn’t great and they don’t have decent games.

Which remote do you reach for in this situation?

Take your pick: Apple, Google, Sony, Microsoft, Comcast and a dozen others are all battling over this space in the living room, hoping you’ll use their software and devices to find and select your next movie.

And now along comes Nintendo, like a Super Mario quarterback, leaping over the pile of linebackers bashing each other at the goal line.

Fils-Aime explained how Nintendo can make this move.

The company has several advantages. It’s good at making simple, accessible interfaces. The appeal of its games will bring the Wii U into millions of homes. The company designs and builds its hardware, so it can include things like the infrared remote control.

Nintendo’s business model is also key, because it’s not competing with the video companies needed to make Nintendo TV a success. Unlike Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo is not running a video store that conflicts with services on its platform.

“Essentially we were the perfect vehicle to drive this type of innovation into the home, whereas all of the other competitors have maybe an issue from a partnership standpoint that is tough to solve,” Fils-Aime said.

Instead of trying to become the new cable box, Nintendo wants the Wii U to augment whatever TV setup people are using.

Nintendo also is getting a jump on Apple, which is expected to someday offer a more ambitious TV product than its wireless adapter for streaming video.

Altogether, this positions the Wii U to ride whatever evolution in TV services happens over the five- to 10-year life cycle of the console. Over that time TV broadcasts may shift further toward online delivery, increasing the need for truly universal remote controls.

In the meantime, Nintendo is drawing on the cluster of network and cloud-software expertise in the Seattle area. Fils-Aime said it’s done more engineering on the Wii U and its services in this region, where the company now has about 1,300 employees.

It will take awhile for people to figure out where Nintendo’s heading this time, but I’ll bet a lot of them end up crazy for the Wii U.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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