Sony on Wednesday sought to leapfrog the online achievements of its game console rivals Microsoft and Nintendo with the announcement of Home, a virtual world that will run on its PlayStation 3.

Sony, which dominated the previous generation, has been a poor third to date in sales of next-generation consoles and has lagged Microsoft and Nintendo in developing online services.

Microsoft announced on Tuesday that its Xbox Live service had reached the target of 6m subscribers four months ahead of schedule.

Nintendo has introduced a range of services for its Wii console, including a shop, Mii avatars, and news and weather channels.

Sony’s efforts for its PS3 have been focused until now on a simple online store. But at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, it unveiled its new 3-D world.

Home looked similar in concept to the Second Life virtual world that has garnered much attention, but its graphics were stunning, aided by the PS3’s superior processing power.

Sony has always maintained that the higher specifications of its console would ultimately give it an edge over its rivals as it encouraged the creation of richer applications for it. Home appeared to be the first evidence of this.

Phil Harrison, head of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Worldwide Studios, demonstrated how users could easily design 3-D characters, furnish an apartment and wander around the environment talking to friends’ avatars, using voice or text chats.

They could visit a games lounge and play pool on a 3-D table, visit a bowling alley or play arcade machines. A virtual cinema would allow them to watch movies with friends.

In their apartments frames on the walls and flat-panel TVs would show users’ own photographs and videos.

Mr Harrison said a large-scale “beta” testing phase of Home would begin next month ahead of a full launch in the autumn.

The service will be a free download. Sony expects to make money by selling premium items of virtual furniture and upscale apartments, as well as music and video content.

Gamers reacted positively to the announcement. But some said they would prefer to buy and use content by means of a standard interface such as Xbox Live’s rather than through avatars and virtual worlds.

Sony also announced that it was making available key tools for the PS3 to help developers build better games. It demonstrated a new game called Little­BigPlanet, which allows gamers to design their own games within it.

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