Talk about down to the wire, what I speculated yesterday might happen in weeks if not days is in fact happening tomorrow. When you turn on your PlayStation 3s on Thursday, you'll have the option to freely download the 3GB PlayStation Home client, dash off an avatar, then dip your toes into Sony's shiny, neo-industrial digital preserve. So much for speculation by some that the way you get the client "isn't going to be via a mere firmware update or PlayStation Store download."
Nearly two years of work's gone into creating this collage of areas which include bowling alleys, shops, nightclubs, billboards, a central plaza, and bars with game themes like Far Cry 2 and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. There's quite a lot to do, too. You can dance, play pool, chat, collect trophies, hang those trophies on virtual walls, watch videos, dance in front of other people watching videos, be sociable or socially awkward, even launch flying saucers from take-off pads and fly around popping bubbles. If it sounds surreal, it kind of is. There's even a communal jukebox angle where the most requested song is what plays for everyone. (I don't know about you, but I'm voting for Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.")
Some see this as resembling Second Life, except the truth is, there's only a vague correlation. Both are virtual communities where vendors can hawk their wares and you have an avatar through which you channel rudimentary social posturing, but that's where the similarities end. Second Life has its own currency exchangeable for real-world money. It's also awash in adult interaction of the sort you'll never see in Sony's PlayStation Home, where the idea's mostly just to get people socializing, clubbing, playing mini-games, and of course, buying stuff. Also: Second Life is open form, but PlayStation Home is really just a series of smallish nodes you travel between, loading into each as you go. If things get overcrowded in a specific area, Sony loads a new "instance," sort of like Turbine's D&D Online.
What's more, PlayStation Home is expressly designed to dovetail with PS3 game grouping and multiplayer. Position yourself near friends in Home and you can launch PS3 games directly, the idea presumably being that eventually you'll want to dive into Home first and see what's up instead of bypassing Home and thinking of it as merely another discrete application or alternative hangout.
Sony's calling it an "open beta," which is of course the new way companies apologize in advance for any weirdness experienced while they effectively run the service in release mode. For the record, the only weirdness I've seen so far involved dozens of netizens grouping in front of the movie theater's screen (while a trailer for SOCOM was playing) and dancing like Lance Bass in a straightjacket.