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29 Dec 12 Makers of $99 Android-Powered Game Console Ship First 1200 ‘Ouyas’

Like Nintendo’s Wii U game console, the Ouya (that’s “OOH-yuh”) has an unusual name and even more unusual hardware. The console is roughly the size of a Rubik’s cube, and is powered by Android, Google‘s open-source operating system that’s normally found on smartphones and tablets.

Ouya’s makers, who are preparing the console for its commercial launch, encourage interested gamers to pop the case open and use it in electronics projects … or even to write their own games for it. Especially if they’re among the 1,200 who are about to receive their own clear plastic Ouya developer consoles.

Not exactly a finished product

The limited-edition consoles, which have been shipped out to developers already, are not designed for playing games on. They don’t even come with any.

Rather, the point of these consoles is so that interested Android developers can write games for the Ouya, which will then be released to gamers when the console launches to the public. Fans who pledged at least $1,337 to Ouya’s record-breaking Kickstarter project will get one, and while they’re not quite suited for playing games on — “we know the D-pad and triggers on the controller still need work,” Ouya’s makers say — the clear plastic developer consoles serve as a preview of what the finished product will look like, and a reminder of Ouya’s “openness.”

You keep using that word …

In the food and drug industries, terms like “organic” and “all-natural” are regulated so that only products which meet the criteria can have them on their labels. In the tech world, however, anyone can claim that their product is “open,” for whatever definition of “open” they like.

The term was popularized by the world’s rapid adoption of open-source software, like Android itself, where you’re legally entitled to a copy of the programming code and can normally use it in your own projects (like Ouya’s makers did). But when tech companies say that something is “open,” they don’t necessarily mean that the code or the hardware schematics use an open-source license.

How Ouya is “open”

Ouya’s makers have released their ODK, or developer kit, under the same open-source license as Android itself. This allows aspiring game developers to practice their skills even without a developer console, and to improve the kit however they want. The hardware itself is currently a “closed” design, however, despite the clear plastic case. The makers have expressed enthusiasm for the idea of hardware hackers using it in projects, and have said, “We’ll even publish the hardware design if people want it,” but so far they haven’t done so.

What about the games?

The most relevant aspect of “openness” to normal gamers is that Ouya’s makers say “any developer can publish a game.” This model is unusual for the console world, where only select studios are allowed to publish their wares on (for instance) the PlayStation Network, but is more familiar to fans of the anything-goes Google Play store for Android. Several big-name Android developers — including console game titan Square-Enix — have already signed up to have their wares on the Ouya.

Preordered Ouya game consoles (the normal ones, not the developer edition) will ship in April. They will cost $99 once sales are opened to the general public.

Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.

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