By Alfred Hermida
Technology editor, BBC News website
The PlayStation 3 could be out by the spring
Over the next 12 months, the most powerful piece of technology in the home is likely to be the games console in the living room, rather than the PC in the bedroom.
A lucky few have already taken the plunge into this brave new world of gaming, snapping up Microsoft's turbo-charged Xbox 360 home console.
Others will join this roller coaster ride into the next generation of video games with the arrival of new machines from Sony and Nintendo.
Both Sony's PlayStation 3 (PS3) and Nintendo's Revolution are expected some time in 2006.
"We're about to hit the crest of an extraordinary hardware wave," said Margaret Robertson, reviews editor at the games magazine Edge.
"It is hard to remember a time when there was this much exciting kit coming out."
The new consoles reflect how the games business has matured. Video games are no longer the preserve of teens.
The average gamer in the US is 26 years old, according to analysts, and the industry was worth $25bn worldwide in 2004.
Every five years or so, the games industry goes through a major convulsion as engineering and computing advances open the door for more complex consoles.
And with the technology come changes that have repercussions beyond gaming, argues John Schappert, who runs Electronic Arts studios in Canada.
"The PlayStation One was my first CD player at home," he said. "Nintendo's N64 brought the analogue controller. The PlayStation 2 became the DVD player in the home. The Xbox was the first console I played online."
The Xbox 360 can be used to stream music from MP3 players
'l'm pretty confident that the PS3 will be the first hi-definition DVD player in my home."
The new generation of consoles offer computing prowess to rival and exceed top end PCs.
Much of the talk surrounding the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 (PS3) has been about
the graphical detail and realism of games.
Game makers are looking to tap into this power to make games which blur the line between fiction and reality.
"Our goal is to make games closer to reality," said Yves Guillemot, boss of French game maker Ubisoft, "to take you to something that, within two or three years, you won't know if it is real or not."
Creating games with near-photographic realism is only the start of the story.
The consoles from Microsoft and Sony go beyond games, offering the ability to play music, watch video and more. They offer the potential to become the entertainment centre of the digital home.
In a sense, each console maker is defining next generation gaming in its own terms.
"With the 360, the real shift is what happens when you switch your console on," explained Edge's Ms Robertson.
"Before you would just put in a game and play. Now you turn on the machine, check your achievements and see what friends are doing on Xbox Live.
"You are much more aware of everybody's gaming life. It shifts the cultural and social centre of gravity of gaming."
Pick up and play
Sony's vision of next gen gaming is less well defined. It is playing its cards close to the chest, emphasising the raw power of the PS3.
But the machine will also serve as the vanguard for Sony's new high definition DVD format, Blu-ray.
As for Nintendo, the Revolution is about creating new experiences for gamers. The most visible sign of this is its one-handed controller.
Looking like a TV remote, the controller has a built-in motion-sensor, allowing players to control the action onscreen by pointing it at their television and waving it around.
"The expectation that it is going to be a bit clumsy but the moment you start using it, it is extremely precise," said Ms Robertson who recently tried a technical demonstration of the system.
"It has that slight hint of magic as you point your hand at the screen and what you want to happen, happens."
EA's John Schappert agrees: "We've got hands on with the Revolution and, sure enough, the controller is revolutionary.
"It is a control device unlike anything else we have played before."
When gamers can expect to get their hands on the PS3 and the Revolution is the subject of much speculation.
Sony has talked about a spring launch for its machine, while Nintendo has said it will show off its machine at the annual games E3 extravaganza in Los Angeles in May.
"We think September could be the right time for Sony in the US and November in Europe," said Ubisoft's Mr Guillemot, "Japan a bit earlier, say June or July."
He expects Nintendo to aim for a similar launch date in the US and Japan, but fears that Europe might have to wait for the Revolution until early 2007.