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PlayStation 3: The next generation

Sony moves ahead with development of the next version of its video game console. Right now, distributed computing is the name of the game.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--If distributed computing can unravel the building blocks of life, it can probably help make a better version of "Crash Bandicoot."

That appears to be Sony's thinking as the electronics giant moves ahead with development of the next version of its PlayStation video game console.

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), an annual trade show for the creative and technological sides of the game industry, Shin'ichi Okamoto, chief technical officer for Sony Computer Entertainment, said research efforts for the PlayStation 3 are focusing on distributed computing, a method for spreading computational tasks across myriad networked computers.

Distributed computing is making headway as a way for researchers to conduct demanding computing experiments, such as an ongoing project by Stanford University to unlock protein structures.

Okamoto said the method also appears to hold the most promise for dramatically boosting the performance of the next PlayStation. Game developers have said they would like the next console to have a thousand times the processing power of the PlayStation 2. There's no way to do that with hardware advances alone, he said.

"Moore's Law is too slow for us," Okamoto said, referring to the long-held truism that semiconductor power doubles roughly every 18 months. "We can't wait 20 years" to achieve a 1,000-fold increase in PlayStation performance, he said.

Okamoto said Sony is working with IBM to apply Big Blue's research in "grid computing," a variation of distributed computing, to the next PlayStation. While he didn't share details, the plan presumably would involve networked game machines sharing software, processing power and data.

Okamoto added that the released kit that allows PlayStation 2 users to run Linux software on the console is the foundation for much of the research.

Looking further ahead, Okamoto saw even bigger changes for Sony's game business. "Maybe the PlayStation 6 or 7 will be based on biotechnology," he said.

While Sony focused on the future, Microsoft looked at the recent past. Pete Isensee, lead developer for Microsoft's Xbox Advanced Technology Group, used his GDC talk to deliver a mostly positive critique of the Xbox's journey to the market, lauding a product launch that happened on time and without major bugs, a departure from Microsoft history.

"Microsoft has this stigma about not getting it right until version three," he said. "We didn't have a choice with Xbox. If we didn't get it right with version one, Sony and Nintendo would eat us alive."

Xbox glitches Isensee touched on mainly centered on international issues. The game console's bulky controller repelled Japanese consumers, for instance, forcing Xbox to design a slimmed-down version that comes standard with the Japanese Xbox and as an add-on purchase for U.S. and European users with small mitts.

"There is a perception we didn't know what we were doing when it came to the controller," Isensee said. "What we failed to do is a usability test for a global market. You need to do that, because things that work in the U.S. don't always work in Japan or Europe."

That includes the Xbox start-up screen, which had to be redesigned for the Xbox's European launch because nobody realized that the German "einstellungen" wouldn't fit in the same text space as "settings."