Microsoft recently upgraded its Xbox interface, dramatically improving it and adding the ability for players to create and tinker with 3D avatars.

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Sony’s Jack Buser wouldn’t mention competitors by name — he never used the “M” word — when we talked about today’s public debut of Sony’s new virtual world, called PlayStation Home.

But you could tell what Buser, director of Home, was talking about:

“PlayStation Home is really leapfrogging the online offering on any other platform,” the Foster City, Calif.-based executive said.

Microsoft recently upgraded its Xbox interface, dramatically improving it and adding the ability for players to create and tinker with 3D avatars.

Has Buser heard of any efforts by competitors to also add an immersive, virtual-world experience to their online game networks?

They couldn’t even if they wanted to, he said.

“Frankly PlayStation Home just couldn’t be done on any other game platform,” he said, explaining that it takes advantage of PlayStation 3 features like Bluetooth headsets and hard drives on every console.

Sony has done lots of work building Home, and encouraging sponsors such game publishers and retailers to build their own spaces in the world. It had been undergoing private testing and opens today to PlayStation 3 users aged 13 and older with a broadband connection. It’s free to console owners.

“Anybody that wants to try to play catch up is going to have a real hard time,” he said.

In Sony Home, PlayStation owners create avatars that inhabit a complimentary apartment, socialize in public plazas, stores, theaters and areas based on the environments of different games. It’s a dazzling service, and chock-full of advertising opportunities and trinkets for players to buy with real cash.

Players’ progress in games is displayed with trophies, similar to the achievements they can earn and display on Xbox Live. But Home still doesn’t have the sophisticated matchmaking abilities of Xbox Live, even though the trophy system could be used to connect players of similar abilities.

Buser said advanced matchmaking is “very high — to the top of our list” of upgrades that Home will receive: “The idea of bringing gamers together is a core principle of PlayStation Home.”

Search for meaning

Here’s Google’s Zeitgeist list of the fastest-rising search terms in 2008 globally — a snapshot of what’s been on the minds of people around the world:

1. sarah palin

2. beijing 2008

3. facebook login

4. tuenti

5. heath ledger

6. obama

7. nasza klasa

8. wer kennt wen

9. euro 2008

10. jonas brothers

Yikes.

The top search terms in the U.S. were a little different. Apparently we’re more curious about YouTube and the iPhone than Sarah Palin or the Beijing Olympics:

1. obama

2. facebook

3. att

4. iphone

5. youtube

6. fox news

7. palin

8. beijing 2008

9. david cook

10. surf the channel

On the cable front

Apparently, people are very, very concerned about Comcast’s plans to switch “expanded basic” channels to digital signals next year and require more cable boxes.

Tons of questions have come in since Monday’s column. I’ve been adding answers and new information from Comcast to an expanding FAQ list on the blog.

The latest additions include photos of the new Comcast boxes, clarification that TVs with QAM tuners will need a box to get digital channels and word that Comcast is working with Microsoft to sort out issues with Media Center PCs.

Focus on the switch

Speaking of television conversions, a free public educational session on the Feb. 17 switch to digital broadcasting will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at Courtland Place at Rainier Court, 3621 33rd Ave. S., in Seattle.

The event will address over-the-air broadcasts and the converter boxes needed for analog “rabbit ear” televisions to continue receiving signals. It’s not related to the Comcast digital switch affecting cable customers.

Volunteers from Microsoft will help people at the event sign up for the $40 coupons the government is offering to offset the cost of digital converter boxes. Similar events are being held around the country with companies and nonprofit groups pitching in to help the U.S. Department of Commerce explain the switch. The feds’ online info site is www.dtv2009.gov.

There are “approximately 200,990” homes in the Seattle area that depend on over-the-air TV broadcasts, according to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

I bet there will be even more next year as people cut back on cable subscriptions to save money.

This material has been edited for print publication.

Brier Dudley’s blog appears Thursdays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.