Sony launched the PlayStation Vita, its first hand-held gaming device in seven years, Wednesday. Vita, of course, is the Latin word for "life." And after suffering a series of tough blows — from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to a relentlessly strong yen and a significant hacking attack — a bit of new life is just what the struggling company needs.
The Vita went on sale at a Best Buy in Los Angeles Wednesday morning. Despite the company's $50 million marketing campaign, only about a dozen gamers were on hand.
Tyler Hinkle, 38, was among them. For him, the Vita will be just the newest addition to his already large library of electronic devices.
"Well, it comes down to, I'm a nerd and I pretty much have to have one," he says. "I have a PS3, and an Xbox 360, and an iPhone — and I'm buying a Vita because it is going to be a portable device for more hard-core gamers like I am."
Though Hinkle had never played a Vita, he knew all about it. In addition to traditional controllers for your thumbs, the device has some of the most cutting-edge technology around: touch screens on the front and the back, so you can use all your fingers to navigate through a game.
It also has front and back cameras that enable gamers to incorporate the world around them into a game.
Still, the Vita is up against some serious competition, according to industry analyst Jack Plunkett. "The product is absolutely cool," he says. "But it has to be absolutely cool, because the competition from other platforms is so daunting."
That competition is not just from other hand-held gaming devices, but from consoles and mobile phones as well.
Naturally, Jack Tretton, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment America, says playing on the Vita is superior to playing games on your phone.
"I think the first thing you're going to notice when you hold the Vita in your hand is that this is a device that was built for gaming," he says.
That's a big contrast, he says, to game play on your phone. "When you hold a smartphone in your hand you say, 'Oh, in addition to dialing the phone, I can take advantage of some minor gaming expertise with this.' "
Plunkett says the Vita is also aimed squarely at a very particular group of consumers.
"It's a pure game machine aimed at absolutely avid gamers who want to spend some real money on it," he says. "And that's going to be interesting to see what happens."
Sony desperately needs the Vita to be a hit, because the company has been losing money for years.
"It's potentially a real redeemer for the company and based on everything I've seen they have a really good chance with it," Plunkett says.
But success will be a tall order. Plunkett says Sony needs to sell at least 50 million of the devices — and at least a half a billion games — over the next five years to make a profit.
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