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Sony announces PlayStation 4, shows off cloud gaming features and more

After almost seven years, the wait is finally over. On Wednesday, Sony unveiled the latest in its venerable PlayStation line, the PlayStation 4, as well as detailing its plans for the rest of its PlayStation ecosystem.

Sony Computer Entertainment President and CEO Andrew House kicked off the event, describing the announcements as “a bold step forward for PlayStation as a company.” The company’s goal, he said, was to give players “truly magical experiences that can only be found in our world.”

See also: PlayStation 4: A few more details come to light.

Update 02/22/13: Sony has released video of the entire event on YouTube

The guts

While the console itself never made an actual appearance, Sony did share some details about the hardware at its heart.

The PlayStation 4 is based on what lead system architect Mark Cerny describes as a “supercharged PC architecture.” For example, in choosing a CPU the company has eschewed the PlayStation 3’s Cell architecture for the more popular x86 architecture. Cerny also promised the console will include a high-end PC GPU, though he wouldn't divulge any details about manufacturer or model. He said it has been modified to make it easier to use the GPU for computational tasks like physics, offloading some of that strenuous work from the CPU. The PlayStation 4 will also pack 8GB of unified GDDR5 RAM and an internal hard drive for storage. Curiously, no mention was made of an optical drive, Blu-ray or otherwise.

The real stunner is the 8GB of GDDR5 memory, shared between the CPU and GPU, which Sony revealed to deliver an impressive 176 gigabytes per second of bandwidth. That’s 16 times the memory as you’ll find in a PS3, and about 7-8 times the bandwidth.

The PS4 will also feature a specialized secondary processor that allows it to download games in the background while the user is playing a game, or even while the system’s main power is off. In fact, digital titles will even be available to be played as they’re being downloaded.

Sony didn’t drill down too deeply into the specs of the hardware, and that’s perhaps wise. The promise of PS4 is that the architecture is flexible and easy to work with, not that it has a certain number of gigaflops. To that end, the architecture seems like a success. It’s powerful—clearly powerful enough to deliver a major leap over current console games—while familiar for developers. Is it more powerful than a high-end gaming PC? No, but new consoles have never really outclassed gaming PCs. Because developers have less overhead from the operating system and can more easily program at a “low level” to extract the maximum performance from the hardware, home consoles generally can do more with less than gaming PCs.

PlayStation 4 is not a minor improvement in hardware power. It’s a great leap over the PlayStation 3.

Online and sharing

Sony claims networking is a key ingredient of the PlayStation 4, a fact presaged by Sony’s acquisition of cloud-based gaming service Gaikai last year. The PlayStation 4 gives players the capability to broadcast real-time, live video of the game they're playing to friends—or even to multiple people in a scheduled broadcast.

That’s facilitated in part by the novel addition of a Share button on the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 controller. Pressing the button lets players immediately start displaying video of their gaming session. Friends can drop in, watch users play in real time, offer comments (if the player allows them), and even potentially take over control of the game (to help a friend through a tough spot, for example). That last feature sounds fantastic, but Sony made it sound like it was pie-in-the-sky future planning, not a feature ready for the system's launch.

The redesigned DualShock 4 controller features a touchpad, lightbar, and integrated Share button that makes it easy to broadcast your game to your friends.

Video can also be easily uploaded and shared with friends: Sony showed off an interface for quickly paging back through recent gameplay, trimming out a section, and uploading it in the background as you continue to play. That’s made possible by dedicated, always-on video compression and decompression; the goal, said Gaikai founder Dave Perry, was to make sharing video as ubiquitous as sharing screenshots is today.

The Share button isn’t the only addition to the DualShock 4—it also incorporates a headphone jack, a touchpad that can be used for input, and a lightbar that allows a new 3D stereo camera peripheral to detect the controller’s location.

A 3D stereo camera peripheral can work with the lightbar on the controller to detect the location of the controllers, and track their movements.

Sony also said that its online network would be based around real-world friendships, real names, and real photos—most likely seeded from existing social networking relationships. However, executives said that in cases where anonymity was still important, and within game worlds, avatars and nicknames will still be available.

This is a serious departure from current gaming platforms, and speaks to likely tight integration with Facebook, which has similar rules. There are big potential ramifications for safety and security here, especially with regards to children using the system.

Without more details, it’s hard to know what to make of these changes. On some levels, it seems drastically more convenient, and friendlier to a mass public used to existing social networks. On the other hand, it’s scary to think of your kids’ real names being available to people they play with online, or to Sony tracking what your gaming and viewing habits are. Will there be special protected child accounts? To what degree what you limit Sony’s ability to track your habits? Is all of this stuff opt-in or opt-out?

The whole ecosystem

Though Sony executives repeatedly spoke about their choice to focus on gaming above all else, the company did acknowledge that a game console has to serve multiple masters these days. Sony briefly showed off the redesigned interface, which they said would be largely customizable, and talked about making partnerships with both video providers like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu, as well as social networking deals with the likes of Facebook and Ustream.

Lead system architect Mark Cerny discussed the importance of involving the many devices we all carry around, including smartphones and tablets.

Sony also acknowledged the importance of the multitude of devices that consumers carry around these days. The company’s made Remote Play a key ingredient of its strategy, baking it into the console with the long-term goal that users can play any PS4 title on their PlayStation Vita. Companion applications for smartphones and tablets should allow you to do things like watch videos of opponents’ play while you're away from your console.

If there’s often a fight over who gets to use the living room TV, in your home, this could be just the thing. Sony claims to have reduced latency to keep games responsive, but I’m skeptical. This is a serious problem with networked "screencasting" technologies today, and it’s not trivial to make it work well in demanding game environments.

While the company said that PS3 titles wouldn’t be natively supported on the PlayStation 4, Gaikai’s Perry said that Sony wants to use cloud technology to eventually bring all of Sony’s PlayStation legacy titles, from the original console onwards, to all of current devices. “This would fundamentally change game longevity,” said Perry.

Streaming game services like OnLive and Gaikai are interesting, and make for neat demos, but the experience of using them at home is currently a significant step backward from playing the game on your own local machine. You have to contend with annoying control latency, video compression artifacts, and limited resolution. Will gamers be happy with playing their old games this way? My experience with streaming game services has left a bitter taste in my mouth, and without major improvements, I’m not sure if the game-playing public will accept the drawbacks.

Next: Plenty of games on display

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