Infinium, a start-up planning a game console based around the PC architecture, has been making headlines ever since it announced plans for its Phantom game console last year, although not always the type of headlines a company wants to see.
The planned beta test never happened and the predicted first quarter 2004 launch won't happen either. There was also disappointment at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month when consumers were only able to see a non-working model - although the company said it demonstrated a working model in its hotel suite.
Earlier this week the company made headlines again with another surprise. This time, however, it wasn't what the company hadn't done but rather what it had: it named Kevin Bachus, a founding member of Microsoft's Xbox team and one-time product manager of DirectX technology, as its president and chief operating officer.
If nothing else, by joining Infinium Labs Bachus has given the company's credibility a boost.
Initial doubts about the Phantom had spread fast on online message boards and the company's case wasn't strengthened by the string of events that led some to conclude the console was little more than vaporware.
His appointment and two other announcements by the company earlier in January are now making some people take Infinium Labs more seriously. It announced a listing on the over-the-counter market, via a traded shell company, and the closure of a $15 million financing round.
In a telephone interview with Digit, Bachus outlined his plans for the Phantom project and the tasks ahead of him before the console and its companion online system can be launched, currently scheduled for late 2004. He began by disclosing the current state of the project.
"Right now the Phantom Gaming Service is what I would consider a prototype," he said. "We can demonstrate that the system works. However there is a long way we need to go to take this prototype to a finished product that can be mass produced."
Just how far there is still to go can be seen with one of the tasks ahead of him: The company has yet to identify a target customer for the Phantom.
"The number-one task ahead of me over the next few weeks, without question, is to identify who my customer is. The very first task that I kicked off when I joined the company was to do proper market research to figure out who our primary customer is, what they buy, where they shop, what they play, how much they are willing to spend."
The answer might not be obvious because Infinium Labs is using a different business model to those of other console platforms. It relies on an Internet-based service called the Phantom Gaming System over which content will be delivered directly to the console via a broadband Internet connection. It's expected to come with a monthly fee in addition to charges for the games.
Bachus describes the model as similar to cable television.
"I really don't think about the hardware as much as the service offering," he said. "It's really about the content being delivered over that connection."
The content line-up is as much of a mystery as the target customer at present.
"I think it's really hard to have a meaningful conversation with a content provider until you can articulate answers to all of their questions," he said. "I don't think we are in a position to be able to answer all those questions to the level or rigour that I would expect if I were a publisher. For instance, the exact launch date, the install base forecast, the price, the distribution channels - all these things are precisely the things my team is working on."
The technical specification of the console is also yet to be decided. However, plans call for it to run a variant of Windows and be compatible with PC gaming titles.
"The specification of the hardware is designed to run leading-edge games for the next three to four years with what I would describe to be an acceptable level of performance for the consumer."
Final details haven't been decided and Bachus said they may exceed a set of provisional specifications announced last year. Also up for reconsideration is the previously announced choice of Intel and NVidia as respective suppliers of the main and graphics processors.
"The goal is quite clear. We are not going to go backwards from where those initial specs are. We are not going to end up producing a cheap, low-powered system. At the same time I can't tell you today if its going to be an AMD chip or an Intel chip, a NVidia chip or an ATI chip."
Looking ahead, Bachus said consumers can expect to see the Phantom at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) that takes place from May 12 to May 14 in Los Angeles.
"You should expect to see something special from us," he said. "Perhaps something a little surprising."
As for whether consumers will be able to see the system working he left no room for guessing.
“Absolutely. If there is any chance of us coming to market this fall you would expect to see hardware aplenty at E3.”