Gaming Still Grabs Some Spotlight at the Consumer Electronics ShowS

A nearly pocket-sized computer gaming rig and a video game console that can mimic your facial expressions were among the gaming innovations shown off at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.

Increasingly, the annual Vegas electronics show has become less about gaming and more about some of the things that gamers and gadget hounds might find interesting. 3D televisions made a return appearance at this year's show, for instance, as did transforming cars, robot pitchmen and networked televisions.

But for those strictly interested in gaming, the innovations, while eyebrow-raising, were few and far between.

Sony president Sir Howard Stringer kicked off the show, which drew about 140,000 people from around the world to Las Vegas, with a walk through of his company's big push: 3D. The presentation, which wrapped up with a short performance of Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis, seemed mostly fixated on 3D. They showed off cameras and camcorders that can capture and display in 3D and 3D televisions.

Gaming's one moment during the show gave us a look at Music Unlimited, a service that can take your music library and stream it to your Playstation 3.

Later that night, head of Microsoft Steve Ballmer walked attendees through their three big pushes: computers, Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360.

The company talked about their continued push for Windows Phone 7, showing off both a Fable-themed golf game and a retro Game Room for the device.

They also gave a first look at Avatar Kinect, a virtual Xbox 360 chat room that will use the console's Kinect camera array to capture a person's facial expressions and display them on a cartoon avatar during live chats.

While this first use of the technology seems a bit silly, the future potential of a console that can watch your face and see your expressions is staggering. Developers could, perhaps, use the information to tweak how a game delivers its performance live, allowing its virtual actors to reply on the same sort of feedback theater actors have relied upon for hundreds of years.

Multiplayer games could add a new facet of communication, letting players' in-game characters show on their faces the look of surprise when they're caught off guard, or the look of delight when they catch someone else by surprise.

A Microsoft spokesman declined to say if there were any current big titles, games like Gears of War 3 or Mass Effect 3, that are working with the new technology. But he added that it was being made available to developers.

On the mammoth show floor there was also plenty to look at from an iPad stand that doubles as a mini arcade cabinet to surprise look at the upcoming Portal 2 in 3D played with magnetic motion controllers.

The neatest thing I looked at was Razer's Switchblade prototype. The book-sized, touch-screen gaming PC includes a keyboard with keys that can each display letters or separate images that can change on the fly.

Razer president Robert Krakoff says he's not even sure he can produce the device yet, but it was already getting quite a bit of buzz, including a bit from game developer and publisher Valve.

The best way to sell a device like the Switchblade, Krakoff seemed to agree, was to partner with a big publisher, like Valve, which has it's own online digital gaming store. Imagine a gaming PC that is always connected to Valve's store so it can be loaded with the latest games on the fly and played just about anywhere.

While the device has a touchscreen and that fancy keyboard, it also has the ability to accept a wireless or wired mouse and includes two built-in batteries for what Krakoff hopes will be a chunky battery life.

With the year just kicking off, we expect to see plenty more of things like emotive avatars and Razer's tiny gaming rig at the Game Developers Conference and E3.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.