No PS3 surprises at CES keynote address

Sony CEO Howard Stringer touts Sony's overall digital vision as Kaz Hirai rehashes E3 footage, talks PSP and PS2.

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LAS VEGAS--For gamers, no event at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show was as anticipated as Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer's keynote address. While yesterday's Microsoft presentation did have some surprises--like an HD-DVD peripheral and Capcom Xbox Live Arcade games--the fact that the Xbox 360 is already on the market made it largely moot, from a gaming perspective. Not so Stringer's address, which many hoped would offer new revelations about Sony's next-generation console, the PlayStation 3.

Unfortunately, Stringer chose to focus more on Sony's overall vision of a "digital future" than on games in particular. After a series of flashy multimedia presentations, the wealthy Welshman began a keynote address, which hewed closely to the official Sony CES 2006 Web site.

Both the site and Stringer's speech outlined the company's four-pronged plan of attack for the digital age. The first prong the CEO mentioned was e-Entertainment, the concept of using--what else--Sony electronics to access entertainment in new ways from any location. As examples, Stringer trotted out the new Sony Ericsson W810 mobile phone with Walkman music playback and the Sony Reader, a slim new e-book device.

However, it was only when Stringer whipped out a PSP that gamers' ears perked up. Stringer used the handheld to show off LocationFree, Sony's Internet-enabled video system, which streams video to multiple TVs, PCs, or PSPs wirelessly or over the Web. To demonstrate, Stringer showed a live East Coast TV broadcast being played onto the PSP via a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot.

Several celebrities joined Stringer to help tout the second aspect of Sony's four-part plan, Digital Cinema. Unsurprisingly, all three--actor Tom Hanks, director Ron Howard, and producer Brian Grazer--are involved in a major Sony film production, Columbia Pictures' forthcoming The Da Vinci Code.

Of greater interest to gamers was Sony's third prong, Higher Definition. Similar to Microsoft's prophecy of the forthcoming "HD Era," this part of Sony's plan outlines how it will (hopefully) dominate HDTV entertainment. Its cornerstone is Blu-ray Disc, the next-generation media format that is vying against HD-DVD, backed by Microsoft and Toshiba, to succeed the current standard, DVD. The PlayStation 3 will come with an internal BD-ROM drive, while the Xbox 360 will require users to buy an external HD-DVD peripheral.

To help drive home the importance of Blu-Ray, Stringer was joined on stage by Michael Dell, founder and chairman of Dell Computer. In a presentation tailor-made to counter Microsoft's hyping of HD-DVD the previous evening, Dell said that BD-ROM was a format that would last over 10 years. He also reiterated his company's support for the format, which can store upward of 50GB of data on a single disc.

Unfortunately, when it came to the fourth part of Sony's digital future vision, PlayStation, the Sony keynote address disappointed. Stringer, a masterful presenter, ceded the floor to Kaz Hirai, the similarly smooth president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, who talked about...the PlayStation 2. Hirai said the console actually saw a 10 percent year-on-year increase in holiday sales, contradicting many analysts' predictions. He also elicited chuckles by pointing out that both the PS2 and the PSP outsold the hard-to-find Xbox 360 over the holidays. He also took a verbal swipe at Sony's next-gen rival, saying, "The next generation doesn't start until we say it does."

When the subject did turn to the PlayStation 3, Hirai offered no major new information. He did say that the console is a "key pillar of Sony growth in 2006"--reconfirming its release this year--and said Sony has shipped out 4,000 software development kits for the console worldwide. Otherwise, though, Hirai merely restated previously known information about the PS3. He said its CPU, the vaunted Cell processor, would use only seven of its eight cores, and, yes, the console would be backward-compatible with both PS2 and original PlayStation games.

Hirai's multimedia presentation also contained nothing new about the PS3. After running through a series of slides showing a nonfunctioning PS3 console and its controversial "batarang" controller, the lights dimmed. Then trailers for MotorStorm, Formula 1, Vision Gran Turismo, Lair, and Warhawk were shown--the same trailers Sony showed at E3 last May. The only one with any discernible additions was Vision Gran Turismo, which had a flashy new introduction.

With that, Stringer retook the stage to deliver his closing comments. But by that time, many gamers in the audience had tuned out, already calculating when they might get a closer look at the PS3. Luckily, it won't be long until their next opportunity--the 2006 Game Developers Conference is less than two months away.

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