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Sony Unveils Online 3-D World For PlayStation Fans

Similar to Second Life, users can build their own virtual apartments, including custom furniture, floors, and walls.

In a move that blurs the line between video games, the Internet, and reality, Sony plans to launch this year a 3-D virtual world where PlayStation 3 enthusiasts can gather in their own customized apartments to play games, watch movies, and share personal pictures and video stored in the console's hard drive.

Phil Harrison, president of worldwide studios at Sony Computer Entertainment, introduced the upcoming service Wednesday during a keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Dubbed "Home," the service would be available in open beta on the PlayStation Network in April, with the finished release set for the fall.

After downloading the software at no charge from the PlayStation store, gamers with broadband connections would be able to create avatars that would move about the make-believe world. Users would be able to build their own virtual apartments, including custom furniture, floors, and walls, and hang up their own still pictures. The apartments could include a TV where users could play any video on the PlayStation hard drive, including movies.

The online world also would include places for public gatherings and a hall of fame for players who reach milestones in PlayStation games. In addition, Sony planned to lease space in Home to game developers and other third parties interested in setting up shop. "Think of it like a mall," Sony spokesman Dave Karraker says. "They can lease space, and put anything they want in it."

In terms of concept, Home is similar to Second Life, created by Linden Lab in San Francisco. In the latter game, people can also create avatars that travel through a virtual world created largely by the users. Avatars in both worlds can take any form and are capable of emotive expressions. Communications in Second Life is primarily through instant messaging, with voice communications planned in the second quarter. Home will offer, instant messaging, voice, and video communications.

As Sony sees it, Home follows the evolution of video games, which are no longer confined to a console or a PC and a screen. Instead, the games are blending with the Web so players can share their own digital content, communicate, and play against each other or in teams. "Those are the aspects that we are really focused on with Home," Karraker says. "We believe this is the future of game development."

While it has yet to announce a virtual world, Sony rival Microsoft has had an online component to its Xbox console for a while. Using a broadband connection, subscribers can play and buy games, and chat online.

Offering additional features such as a virtual world could help Sony justify the high price for PlayStation. The console's base price is $500, and the premium version $600. Xbox sells for $300 and $400, and the third most popular video game console, the Nintendo Wii, sells for $250.

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