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John Gildred dreamed of a way to lower the barrier for game developers to create entertainment that would run not just on PCs, but in the much wider universe of gaming consoles. The idea: build a Linux-based gaming console that open source hackers can develop for. But can a startup get a foothold on a market dominated by Nintendo, Sony, and (soon) Microsoft? Indrema's chances for survival have sagged in recent months, and on Friday, April 6, Red Herring published this article quoting Gildred saying the project has about 30 days to make it or break it. We talked to Gildred and asked him to describe the Indrema game console for us.
Sims: First off, can you tell us a little bit about what Indrema is?
Gildred: Indrema is releasing a video game console platform in 2001, which essentially makes it extremely easy for anyone to become a developer of a very high-performance video game platform. It will also offer additional high-end video-audio capabilities. It essentially is a digital home entertainment platform.
Sims: I was thinking of it as something of a set-top box with wings. It's a Linux-based system focusing primarily on gaming, but it includes multimedia capabilities such as DVD playback.
Gildred: Yes, actually it's a video game console at heart, but it has a lot of functionality that no one has ever really put in that definition. The multimedia features are personal TV, music library management such as MP3 music, and other secure music formats. It interfaces with the Internet with the capability for broadband connectivity. There is so much that this device does, it really becomes the center of your home entertainment center.
Indrema Informer, a news site on Indrema development
Sims: Why did you choose the Linux platform or what competitive advantage does that offer?
Gildred: Well, Linux was a decision made after our first decision, which was that we wanted to leverage an open source development environment. The reason for that is that one of our primary concerns was barrier to entry for developers. So open source allowed us to establish a set of tools for developing games that were free and still very, very powerful. With that we then went out and investigated different open source kernels that would be suitable for a video game console platform, and by far Linux was the best choice. It has a very powerful core that you can really shrink down to the bare essentials and then pile on the great gaming engine that we have today.
Sims: And then above the kernel level, between that and the interface, you have Open GL and Open AL, the open libraries in that?
Gildred: Open GL is our 3D graphics API, which is a very industry-standard API that has been used extensively in video gaming, and has been used for a very long time in the workstation and PC environments.
Sims: And then you're supplementing that with a proprietary video API, Open Stream -- is that right?
Gildred: Actually, Open Stream is completely open. We really like to use the word "open" correctly, so we are trying to make sure that anything that has the word "open" on our platform actually is. The Open Stream API is something that we are developing, but we will give away the source code of the implementation, and we will publish the spec of the API in such a way that eventually a consortium will govern its evolution.
Sims: How do you get into a market like this with today's huge players? We've got the momentum of PS2 right now, and we've got X-Box on the horizon. It seems like you're targeting a window of opportunity between the two. How do you walk into that game?
Gildred: Well, I think that the game is totally being rewritten right now, and it's funny, because one of our internal sort of mottos or things that we believe is that there are the new rules of the game, and it's changing, the market is changing. I think the new rules of the game are that the devices are becoming multifunctional, and this sort of never-ending promise of conversions, that has never been delivered, I think will actually become realized, in terms of interactive TV, on the video gaming side. I think that as an engine, you need to have a device that can render very rich graphics and very compelling content. That rendering engine has to be much more sophisticated than what you see in cable boxes today or in any of the other set-top boxes, and I think that's part of the reason why you don't see a compelling development environment for content for interactive TV or for that type of a thing. When you think of the video game platform on the console side, it's traditionally been a great consumer electronics-oriented development platform but one now that is becoming connected to the Internet and connected to television that may be interactive very soon.
Sims: And it seems like one of the ways you're really changing the roles is that you're giving your developer kit away for free.
Gildred: That's right, and because this whole sort of revolution in technology is happening and it's now becoming a big deal in the living room more so than the desktop, as we move ahead we want to enable that by allowing it to get in anyone's hands. So essentially any user, any game player, can become a game maker. We think with the free tools that we make available in our open source software development kit, you really can download everything that you need to get started and you can let your imagination run wild. There is a learning curve there, but we think that, with the tools being free, it'll be interesting to see the amount of talent that is now able to come to market, whereas before they weren't.
Sims: So it's a low barrier of entry as opposed to the other console gaming development programs, which require a lot of money. If there's no barrier to entry, those wind up as PC games.
Gildred: Exactly. If I'm making a game in today's market and I want to get it to market and I don't have the reputation in selling games already or I haven't worked for another company and successfully built a large blockbuster game, I don't have much of a chance of cutting a deal with a large game publisher or a game console manufacturer. So there's very little chance I can sell to the video game consumer electronics space, and the majority of the video game market is the console side, not the PC game side. So you kind of see this duality, sort of this teeter-totter effect, where the size of the market on the PC side is much smaller because the barrier to entry for developers is low, but the barrier to entry for consumers to use the platform is high. It's very difficult to configure a high-end game for a PC. On the console side, it's the opposite, where the barrier to entry for consumers is low because they're easy to buy, plug in, and use. The barrier to entry for developers is almost prohibitive for independent developers, and that teeter-totter effect is something that has made it difficult for a lot of the talent in one side to move over to a much larger market, and we want to change that rule. We want to make it so that any independent developer or any large publisher can bring a game onto our platform and get to the mass consumer.
Sims: Tell me a little bit about the company. You're based in the San Francisco Bay Area?
Gildred: We're in Alameda, which is that island in the east side of the bay, and we moved from New York City where we originally started.
Sims: When did the company found?
Gildred: The company under the Indrema name was founded at the beginning of this year, but we were operating earlier than that. Actually, early '99 is when we started, but we were nameless until we finally settled on the Indrema name, which has stuck very nicely.
Sims: When do you think you'll have consoles out? When will people be able to buy these games?
Gildred: We're expecting to make them available by the end of this spring or early summer. The price point is a very aggressive price point, also. We want it to be competitive with the other game consoles, so we are targeting it at $299, and it's quite a piece of hardware for that price.
Sims: You mentioned a little bit about conversions. All these things are in the same box. You've got your personal TV recorder, you've got your game console, you've got your multimedia. I suppose there's going to be applications that come up from the mixture of these -- games that we're not seeing now.
Gildred: Yeah, we've envisioned some pretty interesting stuff. Obviously, you can take video games and you can use all the rich sort of next-generation 3D effects. But beyond that, since we encode TV, you can take MPEG-2 streams from live TV and you can embed those in games. So somebody who's sitting in a living room in an adventure game, that person in the living room could be watching TV and it could be actually what's really on TV, or could be changing the channels. So you can actually tape live TV and map it onto a texture in a video game space. Those kinds of things are really unheard of.
Sims: Another possibility maybe is doing a TV recording of the games you're playing and compiling a CD or DVD of your best moments in a game. That would be sort of an interesting application.
Gildred: You'd have to transfer it onto a PC and then burn it, since there's no burner in the Indrema console, but there is the possibility that someone could develop a software product that allows you to do something like that, absolutely.
Sims: Certifying games and other applications to run on the box is the center of your business model, isn't it?
Gildred: Yes, that really is our reason for being. It's first to establish a platform, which means that we have to create our hardware reference design and get it manufactured, make sure that it's affordable enough so that people can get to it fairly easily, and make sure that it's fully compatible with the software engine that is standard and open. That was something that was not trivial. Getting a high performance platform with a completely open development and game engine is something that really hasn't been done, so we had to do that since it was nonexistent. After that's done, we really just become the certifying body that makes sure that all the software written for the platform conforms to the standards of that platform and is compatible, and we also make sure that the manufacturers are building the products so that all the software will in fact run on those products.
Sims: Last question: It's clear that this is interesting and something new to early adopters and especially people who have a preference for open source technologies. This is something they're really going to look at and probably run right out and snatch up. What's your pitch to people who don't care about the operating system or who aren't involved in the software wars and are just going in to buy a console and yours is just sitting there beside Sony and Nintendo?
Gildred: Well, it's probably the same thing that I would say to myself if I was a customer in a store. I would want to hear three things: "Does it have the best games?", "Does it have the best performance?", and "Does it have a very interesting feature set that sort of goes beyond what we've seen in the past?" We definitely satisfy and push the envelope on all three. Because we're making content development so easy, we really expect to see innovation come on our platform before any other. Because we've innovated technologies like the GPU slide bay, you can upgrade the graphics chip every year at a price that is a fraction of what it would cost to buy a new game system. So you can get new performance every year, not every generation. In the past, generations have been three to five years, which is a real long time to wait for new graphics.
You get our functionality with the MP3 music management system, DVD playback, the personal TV system, broadband, browsing, e-mail and Web, and the high-end video game engine. You've got a huge sort of buffet of home entertainment functionality there that, once you plug it into your stereo and TV, you've really transformed your living room into something that does orders of magnitude more stuff than it ever did before.
David Sims was the editorial director of the O'Reilly Network.
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