LOS ANGELES — To the casual observer, Bob Ebert is doing the mundane electronic paperwork of today's busy executive. He's entering information in his Palm Pilot, from meeting times to a list of contacts.
But take a closer look and it's clear that this is not your average PDA and Mr. Ebert is not your everyday businessman.
The Zodiac personal digital assistant unit into which he is entering phone numbers occasionally shakes, shivers, and emits noises. And Ebert is more than normally engaged. That should come as no surprise. If the pundits of the interactive-entertainment world are right, Ebert, who works for Tapwave and is attending E3 - the video-game industry's annual confab - is holding the shape of our cultural future in his hands: A device that combines professional gaming and executive-level organizing in a single, sleek unit.
"Clearly the potential is enormous, with revenue forecasts from wireless games approaching $2 billion within just a few years," says Douglas Lowenstein of the Entertainment Software Association, calling the hand-held game industry the final frontier for the video-game industry, itself already topping some $12 billion annually.
The corporate-looking Zodiac packs the computing power and high-resolution graphics of a top-of-the-line video-game console into a box the size of a child's hand and also allows players to enter the growing community of online games. The Zodiac is the only next-generation hand-held unit on the market at the moment, and it is only available online. But the word at E3: This is the shape of things to come.
Two of the top players - Sony and Nintendo - announced plans for their own ultra-high-powered hand-held units, the PSP and the tentatively titled DS respectively.
"The DS changes our industry," says Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime. The new dual-screen unit is expected out by the end of the year, but developers have already been working on games that will tap the power and sophistication of the unit, he says. "It will deliver new ways to relate to games and to each other."
The Sony team is blunter: "What we want to do is develop and tap the vast casual gaming audience," says Sony's Kaz Hirai.
Industry insiders regard the new frontier with enthusiasm. "Mobile gaming is the future of the video-game industry," says Shane Neville, producer for Nokia, which makes cell phones.
Mr. Neville points to the N-Gage, Nokia's clamshell cell phone, which doubles as a gaming device, and maintains that Nokia "led the way into this current trend." The company had its own updated sleeker N-Gage phone on display at E3. Himself a bit of a suit, Neville laughs when he adds, "at our business meetings, we all play games."
This observation leads to worries about the implications of a culture full of grown-ups who've never left their toys behind.
"Where is it all going to end, if we never stop distracting ourselves, never stop to focus on what is in front of us instead of the toy in our hand?" says Nancy Snow, assistant professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton.
She says the drive to make bigger, more powerful "toys" has an downside that she already sees in her own classrooms. "I have students in my classes taking notes on these things," she says. She has no way to monitor the degree to which they are also using them to play games.
She adds that American culture is obsessed with mobility and miniaturization, but not very gifted at interpersonal interaction. "Whenever a situation gets boring or challenging, rather than concentrate and figure out something new, they can whip out these things and play a game."
Of course, the ability to grow old with your favorite games is a development that the video-game industry itself regards as a good thing. "All these devices will initially sell to the hard-core gamer," says Jonathan Epstein of Gamespy, an online gaming magazine, "but this will bring more people into gaming." Whether or not the devices will widen the gaming marketplace is not yet clear, but the more things a single unit can do, the more likely it is to sell.
"I like that the unit is a PDA and a phone and a game console," says William Ward, as he plays the new N-Gage unit at Nokia's booth. "I don't have time to play games anymore, but if the hand-held had all these bells and whistles," he says, "it would be easier to justify getting it. You know, to my wife and three kids."