Hot chips and cool consoles

Posted by: Steve Hamm on September 14, 2006

Much has been made of the Cell chip that will be the brains of Sony’s PlayStation 3 game console. Perhaps too much. That thought came to me at the end of Nintendo’s announcement on Sept. 14 of its upcoming Wii gaming console, which is due to be released Nov. 19. The Cell, which has been co-developed by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM, packs the speed of a supercomputer in a game box. Yet Nintendo’s chip, which is also based on IBM Power technology, seems to provide plenty of oomph for all sorts of games, from shoot-em-ups, to role-playing games, to sports and racing. It could be that, just like in PCs, raw processing power isn’t the be-all and end-all it once was.

The most impressive thing about the Wii system was the wireless remote control, called the Wii Remote. This 1 ½- by 8-inch white plastic stick not only does the usual remote control stuff but serves as a virtual baseball bat, tennis racket, fist (for boxing) and skateboard (No, you don’t stand on it. You tilt it side to side to steer). So, for the first time, the players’ physical gestures have become an essential part of many of their gaming experiences. For all of its hyper-active Cell clock speeds, the PlayStation 3, due out in November, apparently won't offer this kind of verisimilitude. “Our competitors are stuck in an old paradigm,” says Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo America. “They think that processing power and beautiful graphics are the path to success. We disagree. Consumers want great entertainment experiences and value for money, and we provide both.” Nintendo put only the processing capabilities in the chip that it felt consumers would get the most out of, and that helped it keep the console price at a relatively low $249.99, compared to what is expected to be almost twice that for PS 3.

The folks at Activision, one of the leading game publishers, helped me understand the importance of harnessing various capabilities in silicon to create great gaming experiences. Activision has created five new games to go with Wii, including Tony Hawk Downhill Jam. Techies from Nintendo helped them out with a tone of technical info and development tools, plus had suggestions for how to tap the potential of the hardware. But it was one of Activision’s own designers who came up with a breakthrough way to use the Wii Remote. He thought of the trick of holding it sideways and tilting it, just like a skateboarder does with a board, to steer right or left. Because each of the consoles has different processor chips and other hardware capabilities, Activision makes different versions of its games to go with each one and take advantage of their uniqueness. “This (Wii) offers a great gaming experience,” says Robin Kaminsky, executive vice president for publishing at Activision. “It’s not the same as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. They’re all different experiences. One is not better or worse.”

Customization of the processor design is a key to the ability of the console makers to differentiate from one another. As it happens, IBM is the processor design and manufacturing partner for all three consoles. (Intel provided a general purpose Pentium PC chip for the original Xbox and Nintendo and Sony used Mips chips for their earlier consoles) Big Blue keeps its three design teams separate to prevent intellectual property and market intelligence from leaking from one team into another. The Cell team is based in Austin, the Xbox 360 team is in Rochester, Minn., and the Wii processor (code named “Broadway”) team is based in Burlington, Vt. In each case, IBM took its core Power technology and its fabrication processes, and then build processor capabilities specified by its three clients. “We provide the paintbrush and a company like Nintendo has to decide how to use it,” says Mike West, a multimedia architect in IBM’s Systems and Technology Group, who attended the Wii launch.

Now, since the current generation of consoles is either out (Xbox 360) or on the way, IBM’s chip designers and those of the three console makers are already starting to think about what processor capabilities they’ll put in the next generation of consoles, five or so years from now. For one thing, they’ll be able to pack more transistors into a small space, since the next generation of chips will be based on 45 or 32 nanometer technology. You can expect them to concentrate on enabling improvements in the way visual objects interact, and on facial expressiveness.

IBM expects Intel, AMD, ARM, and Mips to be among its competitors for the next generation console contracts. Who wins will probably depend as much on their ability to customize designs as it will on raw computing power.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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