PlayStation 4 Orbis release date, graphics and specs news

Sony is busy polishing up the PS4, its next-gen PlayStation. But when will it launch, and what can it do? Find out in our complete guide.

The stakes couldn't be higher for Sony's PlayStation 4. The original PlayStation set a ballsy precedent, doing away with cartridges. The PS2 threw Sonic and his Dreamcast pals under a truck, forcing Sega out of the console game for good.

But the PS3 and its hardcore gaming attitude wasn't prepared for the family gaming revolution that was to come. Its high price led more parents to buy their favourite sprog a Nintendo Wii, and many traditional gamers were enticed by the ever-improving Microsoft Xbox line-up.

The PS3 lost billions of yen for Sony, and it was only after going to the gym to slim down and offer a lower price tag that its fortunes took a turn for the better.

I think Sony has been given enough of a boot up the rear to make the PS4 a real showstopper, and now I hear several internal Sony studios have begun developing games for the next-gen machine.

So how long until Sony unleashes its new console upon the world, and what will it be capable of?

Orbis

Sony could rename its flagship console 'Orbis' following 18 years with the classic PlayStation banner.

It's an unusual name, but it makes sense when you compare it to the handheld PlayStation Vita . According to OPM, 'Orbis Vita' (or rather 'Orbis Vitae' in proper Latin, but I don't think many Romans will complain), translates as 'circle of life'. You can bet the new console will integrate tightly with the Vita, but it's not quite a convincing argument for the Orbis title yet.

How's this for evidence though: Sony has an online developer network for companies that make games for its various platforms and the address orbis.SCEDev.net actually works. It doesn't point to anything unusual, but when you try the same with PS4.SCEDev.net, it returns an error. There's always a chance that Orbis is a separate product to the PS4, but that would be even more unusual than simply rebranding the PlayStation.

Graphics

Call us shallow, but if there's one big priority on any gamer's mind, it's the graphics. The PS3 is capable of outstanding visuals, but they'll look amateur once the Orbis busts out some GPU heat and starts melting faces.

Try out this tech demo by developer Epic for a gritty sign of things to come:

Just to be clear, these are supposed to represent real-time graphics. It's enough to make your eyes bleed pixels.

Epic says the 'Samaritan' demo was designed to push Sony and Microsoft to make their next-gen consoles as powerful as possible. "This is why we did Samaritan and why we're doing a really high-end demo in the room here," its vice-president Mark Rein told CVG. "We really are pushing these guys, because if they don't [improve the tech], Apple will go right past them."

It's one thing to generate the glowing hyper-realism of Samaritan, but will the Orbis achieve the long-held goal of photo-realistic graphics?

Enter Square Enix, the company that made Final Fantasy and dozens of other gorgeous games. It's been working on something called the Luminous Engine, which simulates the way surfaces reflect fine beams of light onto their surroundings.

Try guessing which of the following images is real and which is computer generated:

Luminous real

Luminous generated

Pretty close, eh? The top one is the original photo, and the bottom one is pure digital wizardry. The trick is to simulate the way surfaces reflect every grain of light, and it looks marvellous. Gamers could finally play in a virtual world that looks better than real life.

It's not just Square that's working on photo-real graphics. Sam Lapere recently posted screenshots of a virtual town, demonstrating the kind of textures and depth of field that will have you bouncing in anticipation:

Square virtual town

Of course, the PS4 will need some serious processing testosterone to offer those photo-quality graphics, as well as 3D. Sony will achieve this by simply expanding the PS3's 8-core Cell processor to as many as 32 cores, Kotaku reckons, rather than spending oodles of boodle inventing another new chip from scratch.

IGN claims the official processing specs will be a custom chip based on AMD's A8-3850 (which includes a quad-core 2.9GHz processor), and the Radeon HD 7670 (a 1GHz graphics card with 1GB of dedicated memory).

A few pundits are disappointed with the rumoured spec leak. The AMD processor is considered a budget card, and the Radeon is already several months old. It's hardly the bleeding edge of technology, but Kotaku reckons it's capable of running games at 4,096x2,160-pixel resolution -- that's the equivalent of four 1080p screens in one, and could be a good angle for Sony to revive its floundering TV business with a new gut-busting range of displays. Kotaku adds that it could run 3D games at 1080p, unlike the PS3, which could only muster a third dimension at 720p.

Something still smells fishy, and it's not the ocean dropping from the sky over Britain this month. Perhaps -- and this is going out on a limb -- these are the specs for an entirely different product. Even Microsoft is said to be planning a stripped-down Xbox Lite , which might run on the very same processor and graphics card. Both companies can feel the heat from Apple as it tiptoes into our living rooms . Releasing simplified, affordable consoles might be the only way they can hold ground. Right now, anything could happen.

Sony PlayStation 4 3D headset

3D controls

Sony researchers have been dancing their glasses off trying to improve on Microsoft's hands-free Kinect interface .

Multiple Sony patents, including this one on Patent Bolt, hint at a 3D headset loaded with gyroscopic sensors and voice control. In theory, you wouldn't just see a 3D image on screen -- you could move around your living room and see the angle on the display change relative to your position. That means first-person shooters where you could literally dodge bullets, or tennis games where you can even see your opponent legging it around on the other side, as if they're part of the game.

Curiously, some of the patent images show a player using a tablet-style controller. Will the PS Vita become an iPad competitor and double as an Orbis controller?

That doesn't mean the Dual Shock is on its death bed. It was arguably the best controller of its generation and has improved over three iterations since it rumbled onto the PS1 in 1997. Still, I'd happily let it shake in a skip if this new 3D interface proves to be impressive.

Disc-free?

It's hard to believe the PS4 will ship with a hard drive big enough to replace a full collection of 50GB Blu-ray games. But the iPhone has proven that digital-only stores allow for a tasty business model.

Some people think Sony would be crazy to stick to physical media for the next generation of consoles. There's a fair case for that. Removing the disc drive would make the console much cheaper, and when you consider the lifespan for the PS4 could run into the 2020s, then a digital-only storefront seems future proof. Cloud storage could be the norm, so you could save your library of old games online or upgrade your PS4 hard drive by a few terrabytes. I'll miss rubbing a grubby CD on my t-shirt though.

So what happens when your hard-drive is full? Kotaku says you'll be able to re-download any game at a later date, much like Apple's App Store, since any purchase you make will be tied to your PSN account. That means no more trade-ins, and you'll need an Internet connection to let it verify you as the owner. Expect a noisy backlash from gamers before they all setlle down to play the latest Killzone in 3D.

Launch date

The PS3 was unleashed on the world in 2006, and Sony has long boasted of its 10-year life cycle for the console. Of course, that doesn't mean a new iteration won't arrive sooner. After all, the PS2 was born in 2000 and it was still selling millions in 2010.

Early rumours hinted at a 2012 launch , but Sony president Kaz Hirai was keen to dampen such speculation. He's committed to seeing through the 10-year plan, and insists there won't be a PS4 announcement at E3 this year.

Indeed, Sony has plenty of unfinished business on the PS3. It's still priced at around £190, but there's room for profit once it drops further -- and a new console could stifle that. In November, the newly appointed PlayStation Europe boss Jim Ryan explained to Eurogamer that the majority of PS2s had been sold when they cost less than £120. To be clear, that's the majority of 150 million PS2s. It's no pocket change.

"I think we'll see a game of chicken between Sony and Microsoft," industry analyst Billy Pidgeon from M2 Research told Kotaku. "Sony definitely isn't launching a successor before 2014 and could stand to benefit by having Microsoft launch first."

Still, Jim Ryan admits it would be "undesirable" to release a console too far behind the next Xbox . With careful timing, Sony could offer a better console for a competitive price -- something it completely fluffed last time around. But this game of cat and mouse goes both ways and the stand-off between the companies could be the factor that keeps gamers waiting.

Conclusion

Early tech demos promise an exciting future for gaming and I'm giddy at the prospect of Avatar-quality graphics. 3D continues to be a gimmick that fails to wear out, but the potential for players to actually move in this space could add a fourth dimension to gaming that is yet to be realised.

If Sony can wait out the Xbox 720 and release a competitor with a better balance of price and ability, it could reclaim the console crown over the long term. Just don't expect it to be the cheapest toy in the shop.

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Gaming
About the author

    Tom Davenport spent several years flirting with music production before admitting he preferred writing about technology online. He once performed in a Superbowl commercial, but you'll never find it online. Tom is a freelance writer and is not an employee of CNET.

     

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