Gameboy Advance: Not Just Playing With Content


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Nintendo's Gameboy has been strengthening kids' thumb muscles since its introduction over a decade ago. But those countless hours of button smashing were invariably spent doing one thing: playing games. Thanks to the initiatives of three companies, this year should see that focus expand to transform the Gameboy Advance and Gameboy Advance SP (which folds) into full-fledged, multimedia digital content delivery platforms with an already-established infrastructure of nearly 20 million units in the U.S. alone.

Making a big splash in this nascent market with three major announcements at the quarter-year turn is video game publisher Majesco, the sole operating subsidiary of ConnectivCorp. First came its agreement struck with Nickelodeon to release titles like SpongeBob SquarePants, Jimmy Neutron, and Fairly Odd Parents in the first half of 2004. A week and a half later, the company announced a three-year agreement with 4Kids Entertainment to publish a total of 12 episodes from 4Kids' popular Saturday morning FOX BOX cartoon lineup, while 4Kids has agreed to promote those titles during its programming block. Third, Majesco secured approval to develop and market their video technology in Europe in addition to North and South America, adding 10 million users to the potential market for these videos. Majesco's new video compression technology allows for up to 45 minutes of full-color video to be housed in a standard Nintendo-manufactured game cartridge (90 minute capacities are currently under development).

Also interested in selling animated content for Gameboy delivery is Japan's am3. With a SmartMedia flash storage card and am3's proprietary "Advance Movie" adapter—which fits into the game cartridge slot on a Gameboy Advance (GBA)—consumers can watch anime, sing along with karaoke, and eventually do much more. Officially licensed by Nintendo, am3 has been selling its technology in Asian markets since the second half of 2003, releasing more than 30,000 copies of the first of four titles from the popular Japanese anime series Detective Conan.

But am3 doesn't just want to offer preprinted SmartMedia cards loaded with anime for the kiddies. The company plans to introduce a download model for obtaining content via Internet kiosks, which leverages the quick and easy read-and-write abilities of flash media. Along with a new delivery model, the company hopes to diversify content types to include digital music, photo collections, ebooks, and more. Additionally, am3 is positioning itself as a product that's economical enough to be given away, along with GBA units, as premium promotional products that would include preprinted SmartMedia cards containing a marketing message. The adapters are scheduled to be released in the U.S. in the first half of 2004 and in Europe during the second. Initial prices for the adapter should range between $25-30. The cards will be able to hold 24 minutes of video on a 32MB card and up to 192 minutes with 256MB.

Both Majesco and am3 have focused their initial efforts on selling anime. While this may have something to do with the established market for the youth-oriented gaming system, it also helps to ease a more practical problem. Gameboy Advance, with or without the SP, only has a 4.5" screen. And while many have commented favorably on how remarkably clear and vibrant its images are, it's really better suited to the flat colors, simple lines, and low motion of animation. Trying to capture the epic scope of The Lord of the Rings might be a challenge that's a little too daunting.

With its GBA Movie Player, China's Firstsing Company Ltd. is stepping up to face that challenge. The product (which is not licensed by Nintendo) takes full advantage of flash media's rewritable storage and GBA's built-in processor. It also frees users from having to purchase expensive SmartMedia cards preprinted with content. Employing a CompactFlash card, a firmware-upgradeable adapter, and a remarkably flexible software package, users can in fact watch The Lord of the Rings (or almost anything else they'd like) on a GBA. The software converts a wide variety of video file formats, enabling users to be able to upload any video for viewing by using a drag-and-drop-simple interface. Not only that, the software can also capture digital music and ebooks. There are even some initiatives out there for creating PDA-like programs that can be transferred by a Movie Player adapter and executed on a GBA.

The adapters run about $40, but you'll also need a flash card reader, which will set you back another $20, and the flash card itself—$30 for a 128MB CompactFlash, or between $200 and $300 for a gigabyte, which you'll need to have any shot at storing the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

A promising sign for the future of Movie Player content viewing can be found on www.lik-sang.com, a major online video game retailer based in Hong Kong. The site includes an online forum with over 600 threads devoted to the GBA Movie Player, though only 31 on am3's SmartMedia Adapter (also known as "Advance Movie"). This may be in part due to am3's refusal to release their codec, which is an essential step towards freeing the company's adapter from requiring preprinted media while helping to build the community needed to nurture a new content delivery platform into maturity.
(www.gba-video.com; www.am3.co.jp; www.firstsing.com)