Sony PlayStation Vita console

Sony Vita now has even more to live for

Last month Sony Computer Entertainment’s (SCE) CTO, Dr Masaaki Tsuruta, speaking exclusively to E&T magazine, offered a enticing glimpse of the company’s roadmap for fixed console computing; the interview generated global interest among Playstation futures pundits; but in fact did not tell the full story

When the company launches the PlayStation Vita in Europe, the US, and much of the rest of the world, what will be revealed is, in itself, sure to be a hefty hardware play – with, according to some observers, a hefty price tag to match.

At just over £200 for a Wi-Fi version, and £250 for one combining Wi-Fi and 3G connections, the Vita arrives at the same retail cost as a high-end smartphone (although smartphones, unlike Vita’s, are operator subsidised).

In his exclusive conversation with E&T, Mr Tsuruta revealed that the Vita was deliberately intended to be a “driving technology” product. It has a quad-core ARM-based processor, developed, as was the PlayStation 3’s Cell chip, by the Sony-Toshiba-IBM alliance, and a quad-core Imagination Technology-based graphics processor (a combination, incidentally, that packs a huge chunk of UK intellectual property into the Vita).
It is also packed with sensors: specifically, a three-axis gyroscope, a three-axis accelerometer, and a three-axis digital compass; plus it has a bright cutting-edge OLED screen.

That combination allows Sony to roll-out its Augmented Reality technology, inserting computer-generated images into real-world landscapes. By adding more sensors – probably pressure – and much more computing and graphics power, Sony ultimately wants to make AR a fully immersive 3D experience.

But Tsuruta made one other comment about what Sony had learned from the Vita after the PS3: “We have to have a very strong developer kit,” he said. “There is a lot that developers need to support these technologies, and we have to help them, and that kit has to have life.”

A lot of that makes sense. One criticism of the PS3 launch was that developers struggled to create games that took full advantage of its power, to a point where analysts felt there was not as much software ready to go to market when the console launched in 2006. One of the challenges that will face the PS3’s successor (remember, it won’t be called the ‘PlayStation 4’) will be optimising software to run on a multicore platform: there is no standard model even for programming to best take advantage of even dual and quad-core machines in either games or commercial software, and the next set-top-box style console will have at least eight - probably double that.

Fast-forward to what Sony has done to support the quad-core Vita. It is not a massive line-up, but early reviews have picked upon the in-house developed ‘Wipeout 2048’ and ‘Uncharted: Golden Abyss’ as genuinely compelling software. The pundits believe that you can already make the platform sing.
But there’s more, and it may be that Sony’s Tsuruta was dropping a hint with the phrase “has life” at the end of his apparently entirely common-sensical comment.

Yoshio Matsumoto, the senior vice president at Sony Computer Entertainment with responsibility for game development, has given an interview to Japanese publication ‘AV Watch’ in which he discusses an idea mooted before in very general terms by Sony’s incoming CEO, Kazuo Hirai: taking the Vita’s dedicated operating system to other mobile devices.

“If you’re asking if we’ve made it in a way that’s expandable, so that it’s possible to apply to smartphones and tablets on top of achieving the high responsiveness we need for gaming devices, [yes] it is possible,” Matsumoto admitted. “But that doesn’t mean that [Sony is] applying it to smartphones and tablets at this point in time[…] but it’s been designed with expandability in mind.”

Sony is already marketing ‘PlayStation Certified’ phones and tablets. The first, Xperia Play, was released about a year ago, and the company announced its successor, the Xperia Ion, at January’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. These handsets essentially take and will play existing PSP software, and are predominantly based on the Android operating system. In Ion’s case, the phone runs Android’s 2.3 Gingerbread flavour on a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm. From a technology standpoint, the conclusion has to be that these devices are, to twist a phrase, ‘backwards certifiable’.

Given the investment in the Vita infrastructure, however, and Matsumoto’s more explicit comments, it would make much sense for Sony to go further and transplant the Vita OS to other products. Again, this goes back to another hint from CEO-to-be Hirai (he takes over formally from Sir Howard Stringer on April 01 2012). He, like Tsuruta, has made it plain that Sony is looking towards a decade-long lifespan from its platforms, and that obviously entails more than just the hundreds of millions of dollars for the silicon. They cost so much to develop.

And there is another unavoidable factor. The news this week that EU and US trade regulators have approved Google’s $12.5bn (£7.9bn) acquisition of handset maker Motorola Mobility, while seen as primarily patent-driven, has raised questions over the future of Android’s open-source availability.

Meanwhile, for Sony specifically, news that the Motorola Mobility deal can now close has been accompanied by reports – confirmed by Silicon Valley sources to E&T – that Google is working on a “next-generation” set-top box product that will “go way beyond GoogleTV”. That original proposition was dead-on-arrival, but apart from phones, Motorola Mobility’s other historic strength was the cable TV market.

From a technology perspective, the most immediate way in which Vita offers a platform to move into multicore that may make its expansion inevitable. This is the really hard stuff in terms of building-out products that support hardware. And how hard? One of the star products at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that is relevant nevertheless, had nothing to do with gaming. It was the digital camera management software, AfterShot Pro, from Corel that the company optimised for up to 16-core operation with chipmaker AMD.

“The guys had to do everything with it,” explains Greg Wood, with Corel’s global product marketing team. “They had to start with the compiler and go from there. And it gives us something by really exploiting all those cores that the competition doesn’t have.” As in still photos, so in gaming. The advantages Vita offers in a four-core mobile environment will surely prove impossible to resist.

An extended version of this article will be published in the April 2012 issue of ‘Engineering & Technology’ magazine.

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