3 Do's New Game Player: `Awesome' Or Another Betamax?

Opera? In Las Vegas? Not a big draw. Unless you're talking about a new video machine--code-named Opera--that could well be the highlight of that city's Consumer Electronics Show.

This machine, set to be unveiled by startup 3DO Co. on Jan. 7, has had Silicon Valley buzzing for months. For one thing, Opera will retail for a pricey $700 to $800. Then there are 3DO's backers: Analysts say 3DO has won as much as $15 million in funding from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. and $5 million from Time Warner Inc. Altogether, the company has raised some $30 million. There also are glowing early reviews: Some who have seen Opera say it could be the best new piece of consumer electronics since the camcorder. "It's an awesome product," gushes Gilman G. Louie, chairman of software maker Spectrum HoloByte Inc. "This is the dawn of a new era of entertainment."

The machine is the brainchild of 3DO's chief executive, William M. "Trip" Hawkins III, the founder of game-software maker Electronic Arts. Two years after moving to 3DO, Hawkins has come up with what software developers say is a device with better-quality graphics than any home computer or video-game machine on the market.

BEYOND GAMES. Thanks to a fast compact-disk drive, a powerful microprocessor, a custom graphics chip, and new built-in system software, Opera can play video footage and even display animated characters that appear to move in three dimensions. Computer games and video games now are limited to 2-D movements. Indeed, software developers say 3DO actually stands for 3-D operating system.

But the machine was designed to do more than just play games. Eventually, it will run movies stored on a disk, play audio CDs, and display Kodak Photo CDs. All that sounds good to Time Warner, which wants to release feature films on disk. The company also is considering using Opera as a cable controller, since the device can receive compressed video signals, allowing the media giant to transmit hundreds of channels to cable buyers. Time Warner even sees Opera as a way to launch interactive television programs, in which viewers would be able to play along with game shows.

Still, most of those functions will have to wait. Early demonstrations of the machine have come up short: Opera's resolution isn't up to VCR quality, software developers say, and the first versions of the device, due by next Christmas, won't be able to control cable or interactive TV. Silicon Valley is even rife with reports that Time Warner is now lukewarm about using Opera as a cable controller. Time Warner won't comment until after Opera's debut, but those close to the company say it is shopping for other cable controllers, including one from Toshiba Corp.

In the end, consumers may be unwilling to shell out big bucks for what initially will be just another video-game player. After all, rivals Sega Enterprises Ltd. and Nintendo Ltd. constantly improve their games' graphics. "If we had wanted to create a $700 machine with the capabilities of the 3DO machine, we could have done that," says Thomas Kalinske, CEO of Sega of America Inc.

Nevertheless, Hawkins is a master at creating software and attracting developers. Already, such heavy hitters as Paramount Communications' new Paramount Technology Group, Lucasfilm's LucasArts Games, and Sierra On-Line say they will probably write software for the machine. That's good, because it will take some spectacular performers to lure buyers to an Opera that's this expensive.