Sony puts on game face with new chip

The company will design and build its own advanced 128-bit processor for its next game console--some wonder if the chip will make inroads in the low-end PC market.

3 min read
Sony so badly wants its next-generation game console to offer a super-realistic "virtual reality" experience, the company will design and build its own advanced 128-bit processor to realize this goal.

Processors inside game consoles usually toil away in anonymity, derided as as poor cousins to desktop chips such as Intel's Pentium line. But with Sony Computer Entertainment's ambitious plan, its chips could outclass the offerings of the world's largest chipmaker--if all goes well.

To keep up with the heavy graphics demands of video games, the new PlayStation will rely on a 128-bit chip based on core technology from MIPS and manufactured under a joint venture with Toshiba. This new main processor, called the Emotion Engine, will run at 300 MHz, and it even has the 32-bit processor from the first-generation PlayStation attached alongside of it on the same piece of silicon so it can play older games.

Another key component to the upcoming PlayStation is a separate graphics chip, dubbed the "Graphics Synthesizer," which has 4MB of memory integrated and runs at 150 MHz.

"Embedded chips used to be the ugly stepchild of the processor industry [and] used to be built on trailing-edge manufacturing processes," said Jim Turley, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources, at the Embedded Processor Forum in San Jose, California. However, these chips are starting to close the gap, most notably in the case of Sony's two upcoming chips.

The system is so advanced, MicroDesign Resources analyst Keith Diefendorff wrote in a report that the system "has the potential to swipe a chunk of the low-end market from under the noses of PC vendors." He wrote that the platform may "signal the company's intention to move upscale from current game consoles, cutting a wider swath through the living room," with its abilities to function like a stand-alone DVD player and Internet set-top box.

But despite all the computing power offered by the chip--it has the ability to crunch three times the number of floating point calculations as a Pentium II 500-MHz chip, Sony claims--Sony says it isn't interested in exploring other varied uses for the chip outside the home entertainment market. For instance, Sony doesn't appear interested in selling the chip to other companies for other uses.

All of this technology comes at a significant cost, though, and because of the use of such advanced production technology, analysts question whether Sony and Toshiba can deliver on their promise to ship systems in Japan by March of 2000. Sony executives, for their part, aren't expressing concern, though.

Sony said it needs a lot of computing power to create a compelling experience for users, and that will be done at "any cost."

Phil Harrison, vice president of research and development at Sony Computer Entertainment, demonstrated at the Embedded Processor Forum realistic scenes such as ripples on glassy water, large numbers of complicated 3D-objects moving about, and real-time "morphing" of graphical characters such as was first seen in the movie Terminator 2. Harrison noted that the special effects in that movie required millions of dollars worth of specialized workstations.

"We now have done [those effects] with nearly the same quality in a low-cost consumer device," Harrison said.

How Sony will offer the device at a low cost is a mystery to some analysts. MicroDesign Resources estimates that the chip will cost about $100 to produce. When including the cost of the DVD drive, the IEEE 1394 and USB connection ports, a modem, digital surround-sound capabilities and other materials, MicroDesign Resource said in a report that the PlayStation II will likely cost more than $300 to manufacture.

"We don't care about the cost of the chips. Cost is a secondary issue," said a senior Sony engineer at the Embedded Processor Forum. While admitting that the chip, if purchased from a third-party manufacturer, would cost around $200 to $300, Sony is cutting out the middleman by making the chips itself. And, the cost issue will be resolved over time by making the chips using ever-more advanced manufacturing processes that yield more chips per silicon wafer, executives said. Eventually, the companies hope to make two million chips per month.

Analysts note that the game industry works on a different business model than the PC industry, so cost may indeed ultimately be a secondary issue. Game makers typically plan on losing money initially on hardware sales, while making most money off of software royalties.