By Dan Jones
Sony Corp and Toshiba Corp are planning to set up a joint production venture to produce chips for the new Sony Playstation games console. According to Japanese press reports, the companies have spent nearly 100bn yen ($0.8bn) on setting up the production facilities, which may start producing chips as early as next month. Toshiba is expected to hold a majority stake in the venture.
Sony has spent nearly 20bn yen ($0.16bn) on developing the new machine, which is expected to be called the Playstation 2000. The multi-processor console has a 128-bit Emotion Engine multimedia chip, designed by Toshiba and Sony, a separate graphics synthesizer designed in-house by Sony and an LSI Logic dedicated input/output processor, which is backwards compatible with the original Playstation. The machine also features a dedicated audio chip, which provides 48 channels of sound and a floating-point unit (FPU) to ramp up graphics performance. The 32Mb machine will use Direct Rambus Dynamic Random Access Memory (DR-DRAM) chips as it main memory.
The machine offers the kind of graphics performance previously only seen on high end graphics workstations, with rendering speeds up to 75 million polygons per second. Polygons are the geometric basis of three dimensional graphics, images and backgrounds being made up of vast numbers of polygons. The new Sega Corp Dreamcast console has a peak performance of just over 3 million polygons per second. In addition, the new Playstation uses a DVD-ROM and MPEG-2 compression techniques to add a filmic quality to gameplay.
However, Nick Gibson, games analyst at Durlacher Research, says that this innovation may carry some cost benefits. There has been no price released for the Sony machine but it is likely to be much higher than the rival Dreamcast console, Gibson says that everything points to a very expensive machine. The price performance level will be a crucial deciding factor in the sales war between the two new consoles. Gibson also points out that the design of the machine is not as efficient as the Dreamcast, which uses fewer tried and tested components, meaning that if it came to a pricing battle between the two firms, Sega would have more leeway to cut prices.
The investment made by Sony and Toshiba in the new chip manufacturing plant shows the premium that they place on delivering high volume and consistent yields. However, as Gibson says most of the chips in the new machine are untested cutting edge technologies. In the run up to the launch of the Dreamcast, NEC Corp had problems delivering enough good quality graphics chips for the new machine.
Gibson dismisses out of hand suggestions on some Japanese gaming web sites that Sony is planning to use Linux as the language basis of the development platform for the new console. He said that games developers would be very unhappy if the console used an esoteric language that took the machine out of the realm of the PC. This is because developers need to easily port games between games consoles and PCs. Early rumors about the Sony console suggested that the Japanese giant would use a customized version of Microsoft Corp’s Windows CE for development purposes, much like Sega has with the Dreamcast. CE still seems to be the most likely choice for the console’s development platform.
Sony is already working to put development tools and components in place and UK-based Criterion Software Ltd has partnered with Sony to provide its 3D graphics library RenderWare 3 as a middleware component. In addition, Sony is working with the Sunnyvale, California-based Animation Science Corp which is providing rules-based artificial intelligence software, which is intended to enhance the realism of gameplay with imbuing game ‘characters’ with life-like behavioral qualities.