GDCE 2004: PSP presentation informs, disappoints

Overview of Sony's portable confirms that the public won't get UMD writers, presenter refuses to clarify MP3 playback or battery life.

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LONDON--When the conference program at this year's Game Developers Conference Europe was first announced, the PSP-specific session quickly became one of the main draws. We were told that "the presentation also includes information about the new development tools and libraries and is designed to give developers an insight into PSP title development."

However, the 50-odd developers who stuck around for the end-of-day presentation were less than impressed. For one, there was nothing really "new" about the information presented. George Bain, the developer support manager for the Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Technology Group, was content to largely restate the machine's specs, most of which were known as early as last year.

Unsurprisingly, the thrust of Bain's presentation was directed strictly at developers. He explained how the PSP would use an openGL-style API, and although the device would be "almost as powerful as the PlayStation 2," its "programming would be more comparable to the PlayStation One." He also gave some examples of the device's graphics capabilities, such as four-point lighting and GPU skinning functions, which will allow for up to eight bone matrices.

To illustrate his point, Bain ran several all-new video PSP demos created at SCEE. Two showed simple video playback of television nature documentaries. The others showed computer-generated images of jet fighters streaking through the sky and fish swimming in the sea. The images looked slightly rougher than those shown at the US GDC in March, falling somewhere between a PS2 and an original PlayStation in quality.

Bain also explained the PSP's networking abilities. Using its built-in wireless 802.11b LAN connectivity, the handheld will let users connect to an Internet hotspot in or to each other via an ad hoc mode. Bain seemed particularly proud of the fact that the PSP will have a propriety protocol that will give each PSP-to-PSP game its own SSID (Service Set Identifier), allowing for multiple sets of multiplayer games in a single room. Bain also reiterated the PSP's USB 2.0 connectivity, which will allow the device to be connected to either PS2s or PCs.

The highlight of the presentation was the unveiling of the PSP hardware developing tool. The tool will allow for debugging from a host PC connected to a slaved PSP unit and will emulate the PSP's battery life. Currently costing 750,000 yen (approximately $6,800 or 5,600 euros) in Japan--it is not yet available in Europe--it will also contain two drives: one for DVDs and one for UMDs, the proprietary optical disk format used by the machine.

Ironically, it was a revelation about UMDs that drew the most disappointment from the crowd. Though he hyped the 1.8GB disc's multimedia capabilities by saying it could contain "four hours of digital TV-quality video" (versus two hours of DVD-quality video), Bain confirmed that consumers will not be able to record their own UMDs. "UMD writers will not be released to the public or to developers," he said. (Developers will have to record their gold masters on DVD-Rs, which they will submit to Sony.) However, while disappointing to consumers hoping for homemade portable movie libraries, Bain spun the lack of UMD burners as a positive thing for the piracy-plagued game industry. "A key highlight of the format is copy protection," he said.

Bain was less clear on the subject of whether or not the PSP would have MP3 playback, saying only, "that has not been confirmed yet." He said to expect more details at the upcoming Tokyo Game Show, where there will be fully playable PSP games on hand. He was happy to explain, though, that the PSP would be fully compatible with Sony's preferred--and more memory-demanding--ATRAC format, which could be played on the machine via one of Sony's proprietary memory sticks.

The session closed with an at-times heated exchange between reporters and Bain on the PSP's most controversial feature, its still-secret battery life. He refused to answer questions on the subject directly: "I have no idea what the battery life is going to be like. It will depend on a lot of factors, like how loud the player has the volume." However, he tried to assure skeptics that Sony's long record with portable electronics would ensure a respectable battery life. "I don't know what everyone is worried about...The PSP has been designed for low-power consumption," he said, mentioning the low-power demands of the device's VME (virtual mobile engine) specifically. He said both the PSP's battery life and final retail price would be revealed at the Tokyo Game Show later this month.

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