When you consider that video games, for better or worse, are as popular with their constituency - children to adults in their 40s - as movies and television, the prospect of a next-generation gaming machine can be an exciting and worrisome thing.
PlayStation and Nintendo 64 game systems are plugged into TVs in more than 20 million U.S. homes and the number is expected to double next year. How will Sega's Dreamcast, due here in the fall, change things?
PlayStation and N64 blew rival Sega Saturn away last year, dividing the U.S. market 60 (Sony) to 40 (Nintendo). So Sega went to work on a super-gaming machine.
Sega says its 128-bit, 200-megahertz Hitachi SH-4 graphics engine renders three-dimensional images three times faster than today's arcade machines and four times faster than a Pentium II PC. Theoretically, that translates into more movie-like 3-D animated gaming (think "Antz" and "A Bug's Life"). And Yamaha's 64-channel audio, says Sega, will match the power of home theater equipment.
The Dreamcast will use a customized version of Microsoft's Windows CE and a WebTV browser to access Microsoft's WebTV Networks, for e-mailing, Web surfing and gaming across phone lines.
Dreamcast will be released first in Japan. For its U.S. introduction, at $200 to $250, Sega hopes to have a fair sampling of games ready.
Gamers satisfied with the PlayStation and N64 wonder if Dreamcast will offer a paradigm shift, like that of the 64-bit 3-D N64 over the 16-bit two-dimensional Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or just be an incremental improvement in graphics and sound.
The ultimate test will be to play the games Sega persuaded a handful of developers to produce. If they do justice to the technology and create a deeper sensory immersion in an interactive experience, the PlayStation and N64, both around $130, could seem quaint overnight.
Just in case, Sony and Nintendo are developing their own next-generation video game machines.