CULVER CITY, California — On an unseasonably cool Monday afternoon on the Sony Pictures studio lot, the electronics giant that brought Spider-Man to the big screen unveiled a blockbuster of another sort: the new PlayStation 3. Set for release in spring 2006, Sony's machine will arrive in stores just months after Microsoft's Xbox 360, the heretofore most powerful gaming machine on the horizon, announced last week for a release this Christmas season.
The PS3 announcement kicked off the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, the weeklong trade event showcasing the next year's worth of video games. Sony usually holds its announcements until later in the week, but clearly sought to dampen the flare of excitement for the 360 (see "Details On The Xbox 360: Speed, Storage And Customization") by staging some fireworks of its own.
If Microsoft tried to kill with the Killers at its celebrity-infused, prime-time party premiere for the 360 on MTV (see "Omarion, Lil Jon, Killers Toast New Xbox At Hollywood Party"), Sony countered more conventionally, in a massive room of 2,000 industry professionals, with a presentation that began with PowerPoint and covered everything from "programmable shader architecture" to how the number of potential floating point calculations, measured in Teraflops, will change our lives.
Despite the sometimes overly technical presentation, the audience was left buzzing. The PS3, revealed to be only slightly thicker than the original PlayStation 2 but by some measures exponentially more powerful (a CPU with 3.2 Gigahertz vs. 200 Megahertz, for example), was described by a parade of Sony executives, chipmakers and game developers as a "quantum leap in technology," a machine armed with the capability to render movie-quality visuals on the fly. On paper, its specs beat the 360's.
Late in the afternoon conference, the designer of Electronic Arts' "Fight Night" boxing series, Kudo Tsunoda, dashed to the stage wearing a championship boxing belt and speedily narrated a clip of the series' forthcoming PS3 installment. In the clip, the fighters winced, snarled and stumbled with a glassy-eyed discombobulation more nuanced than what is seen in today's games. A slow-motion punch to the face deformed the assailant's leather glove, then opponent's cheek, then lip. Spit flew. "I want players to kind of get that same gut-clenching, stomach-tightening feeling if you were in the ring seeing that punch land," Tsunoda said.
Beyond the ability to calculate such bodily movements, the PS3 was announced to work with up to seven Bluetooth wireless controllers that recharge when plugged into the PS3. The console will be able to output graphics to two high-definition (and presumably regular-definition) displays simultaneously, allowing for a more panoramic view of a game or even split functionality, putting the action of a game on one TV screen while video-conferencing a live Brady Bunch-style view of a player's online opponents on the other. Games will come on Sony's proprietary Blu-ray discs, which can hold more than 50 gigabytes of data, the equivalent of 10 standard DVDs. The PS3 will be able to play PS2 games.
The PS3 was also announced to house built-in WiFi, connecting to, among other things, the recently released PlayStation Portable. (Microsoft's response to the PS3 was swift: Later in the evening, the computing giant announced that its Xbox 360 will be able to play current-generation Xbox games. It also somewhat cheekily showed that the 360 will be able to connect wirelessly to the PSP as well.)
In one of the most imaginative promises for a PS3-powered future, Masa Chatani, Sony's chief technology officer, made quick mention that the PSP's ability to receive a video signal wirelessly over the Internet from the PS3 — and presumably to send commands back to the machine — would enable PS3 owners to play their machines from miles, states or even countries away via their PSP.
After more than an hour of technical talk, master of ceremonies and head of PlayStation in America, Kaz Harai, finally turned his attention to what gamers likely care about most: games. A host of in-development PS3 titles were shown, including sequels to "Gran Turismo" and the "Halo"-styled "Killzone." Superstar developer Hideo Kojima appeared in a taped interview along with a promise of a new "Metal Gear Solid" for PS3. A number of original titles were also shown, including "Incognito," a game of flying aircraft carriers, and "Eyedentify," which used a camera and headset to give the player an onscreen role as the director of a team of Japanese pseudo-Charlie's Angels.
Sony clearly relishes the idea of PlayStation as a futuristic device. The PlayStation 2 was launched to stores in 2000 alongside an ad campaign for the fictional PS9. The PSP has been advertised with a slogan that includes the term "sci-fi." Some of the demonstrations of the PS3 transcended gaming and appeared to come from years yet unlived, but glimpsed in movies such as "Minority Report" and "The Matrix." A video seemingly broadcast from an auto showroom morphed into an interactive car catalog, apparently breaking the real images of the car into its component parts. Another non-gaming feat: the PS3 was shown to be capable of decoding and presenting a mosaic of 1,000 digital movies on a single screen.
For all the futuristic flourish of Monday's presentation, it's worth remembering that during the last five years Sony announced computing functions such as Web-surfing for the PS2 and analysts hinted at "Toy Story"-caliber graphics for the console, but neither has become a reality. And for gamers, the cost for this future is still unknown: Neither Microsoft nor Sony have revealed their new machines' price tags. And several game-makers are promising a hike in game prices to subsidize the development for this new line of advanced consoles.
Still, with more than 80 million PlayStations shipped worldwide — more than quadruple Nintendo's GameCube or Microsoft's Xbox — Sony is confident of a threepeat. Asked if he had any worries about the coming generation, Phil Harrison, vice president of PlayStation's European division, said, "My biggest concern is for people like Sam Raimi to start making games for us rather than movies."
You can check out Gideon Yago's video reports from the heart of this year's E3 on Overdrive, MTV's new broadband video channel.