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Nintendo's Wii U enters online TV arena

December 19, 2012|By Ben Fritz
  • The Wii U's interactive television application will launch with a software update on Thursday. Above, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime shows off the Wii U in September.
The Wii U's interactive television application will launch with… (Mark Lennihan )

Mario wants to be king of the living room.

Video game giant Nintendo Co. on Thursday will launch a software update for its new Wii U console -- the first step in the company's attempt to become the hub for all video watching whether it's airing live, recorded on a DVR or streaming online.

After years of marketing the original Wii as a simple-to-use video game device whose only video option was Netflix streaming, Nintendo is using the Wii U, which launched in November, to challenge giants including Microsoft, Sony, Apple and most cable companies that are seeking to dominate the same turf.

Called TVii, the new features make the Wii U gamepad, a tablet-like controller for the console, into a universal remote of sorts that lets users search and view favorite programs and movies whether on TV or streaming from providers like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. It also has a set of social features to let viewers interact while watching popular programs or sporting events.

"Our hope is that the Wii U gamepad becomes the super aggregator and super remote," said Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America.

Microsoft has aggressively pushed its game console Xbox as an all-encompassing entertainment brand and boasts that its users spend more online time with video and music than playing games. Sony's PlayStation 3 has long been the most popular Blu-ray player, making it useful for much more than games from the outset.

When it launched in 2006, the Wii had no video capabilities -- it didn't even play DVDs. But after adding a Netflix app in 2010, it fast became the most popular device for streaming outside of PCs. Fils-Aime said that experience played a key role in the company's decision to invest in TVii.

Nintendo has licensed program guide information from every major cable and satellite provider in order to allow users to find their favorite programs. It has also obtained infrared codes that let the Wii U gamepad control set-top boxes and televisions as a remote.

In addition, Nintendo is employing guides that post highlights, clips and related information on the Web live while people are watching popular television programs or professional and college football and basketball games. Users can share their own reactions that are posted on Facebook, Twitter or the Wii U's social network Miiverse.

However, Thursday's software update will not come with the ability to program or access content stored on a DVR. Nintendo must still strike deals with providers like Comcast or DirecTV in order to make that happen.

"We'd love to have DVR integration but we can't do that without assistance," said Nintendo of America's director of network business, Zach Fountain, who is overseeing the TVii business. "We're in discussions to cover that time-shifting portion."

Originally set to launch when the Wii U went on sale, TVii was delayed until this month as Nintendo kept working on the software. Still, promised integration with Netflix and TiVo won't come until early 2013.

Nintendo of America has traditionally been a marketing operation that handles games and consoles manufactured by its parent company in Japan. But because the television business is so different in the United States, NoA built the TVii interface itself, together with software company i.tv.

Just as traditional consoles are being challenged by the skyrocketing number of games available on tablets and smartphones, the toughest competition for TVii may be the proliferating number of video apps for such devices.

Nintendo hopes it will offer a superior alternative by essentially rolling many apps into one.

"We don't believe you should have to change your app when you change the program," said Fountain. "TV shows have apps, networks have apps, sports leagues have apps... We want to create a persistent, consistent experience."

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