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Video Games

Nvidia pitches Shield video game console for the living room

The chipmaker has built a set-top box based on Google's software, and promises it can can play high-end video games.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- You've heard of the Xbox, the PlayStation and the Wii? Now get ready for the Shield.

Nvidia, known for the chip components it makes for high-end PCs, cars and tablets, is now building its own video game console for the living room. Nvidia's Shield will have all the typical amenities: it streams video. It plays games. It has a controller.

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Nvidia's new Shield set-top box aims to take on video game consoles. James Martin/CNET

Nvidia claims the Shield also offers one more thing that will help it face off against Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo: a mix of software from Google and Nvidia itself.

The Shield, for example, will use Android TV, which allows tablet and games apps to run on a television set. The console will also connect to Nvidia's Grid service, which can stream video games over the Internet much like Netflix can stream movies. The combination, says Nvidia, makes a compelling alternative to today's lineup of video game devices.

"You don't have a piece of equipment like this in your house today," said Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, at an event during the Game Developers Conference here.

Nvidia's Shield is just the latest in a string of alternative video game devices flooding the market over the past couple of years, often to mixed success. Consumer tastes have been expanding beyond the typical war simulation video game, encouraging games vendors to stake out new territory in the hope of capturing a piece of the industry's estimated $77 billion in sales.

What's driven them are falling prices and rising capabilities of the components to make these devices. One result: the $99 Ouya, a video game console built with chips that typically power a smartphone . While devices like Ouya have attracted a following of devoted fans, few have broken into the mainstream.

Meanwhile, demand has skyrocketed for games played on smartphones, turning developers like King.com and Supercell, makers of Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans, respectively, into multibillion-dollar companies. Nvidia believes it can marry the power of smartphones with high-end video games to create a competitive device. Under the hood, the Shield is powered by Nvidia's X1 processor, designed to create sophisticated visuals for mobile devices. The Shield will also come with 16GB of storage, the same as a typical entry-level smartphone.

The device's real power lies with Nvidia's Grid service, which connects players with a gaming machine in a data center. The technology allows gamers to play visually complex titles without paying for specialized gaming hardware. Grid is currently available for free, but Nvidia plans to start charging for it after June, though hasn't disclosed specific pricing. The Shield will sell for $199 when it's released in May in the US. (UK and Australian details were not available but that converts to around £130 or AU$255.)

This is Nvidia's third gaming device, following the 2013 release of its Shield Portable and last year's Shield Tablet. The company hasn't disclosed sales for either device, although Nvidia executives say they are pleased with the line's growth.

One thing Nvidia has going for it is the quality of its devices, said Lewis Ward, an analyst at IDC. But there are still some aspects the company needs to work on. One is social networking features that allow gamers to interact and play together, a standard feature on video game consoles and PCs.

The other thing Nvidia needs is a broad catalog of games to attract more gamers. "The limiting factor is the size of the catalog," he said.

Huang, Nvidia's CEO, said the company is building partnerships and has set agreements to bring highly anticipated new games to the service and the Shield box the same day they arrive on store shelves.

"We're going to make gaming a lot more accessible and a lot more convenient," he said.

CNET's Ben Fox Rubin contributed to this report.