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Sony plays up future of video games

Researchers predict that ubiquitous displays and reconfigurable chips will revolutionize video gaming. And players can toss out their clunky old gamepads.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Sony executives still won't say boo about the immediate successor to the company's smash PlayStation 2 game console.

But the PlayStation 6 should really rock.

That was the promise of several leading Sony researchers as they offered predictions for the major technology advances in the next 10 or 20 years--and beyond--during a presentation at the industrywide Game Developers Conference here.

Some of the biggest changes, they assert, will center on the way players control and interact with games. Forget mashing the "X" button; future games will use cameras to read your body movements and facial expressions, plus microphones backed by advance speech recognition technology to recognize vocal commands. And perhaps they'll all be crammed into your personal entertainment robot, so the game sensors follow you wherever you go.

"All these sensors are unified, and the computer is doing the hard work to put it all together," said Richard Marks, manager of special projects for Sony Computer Entertainment America.

Big advances in display technology will also change the way games are played, said Dominic Mallinson, director of R&D for Sony Computer Entertainment. Head-mounted displays that beam images directly onto the retina will create images indistinguishable from real life. And wirelessly networked displays mounted everywhere from bus stops and refrigerator doors to your clothing will ensure that game experiences aren't limited to the living room.

"It means that for a persistent game, you really can just pick up and play anywhere," Mallinson said.

Under the hood, Marks said, expect processors to become more flexible, allowing developers to reconfigure parts of the chip as necessary.

Online games will also improve because of dramatically faster network connections, Mallinson said, although limitations for long-distance connections still exist. "There are some fundamental problems, like the speed of light," he said.

The researchers hesitated to make predictions much beyond the next couple of decades, but Marks said it seemed entirely feasible that by the time the PlayStation 9 rolls around, technology will allow a direct connection between the game console and the player's brain.

As for the near-term future, Andrew House, executive vice president at Sony Computer Entertainment America, maintained the company's tight-lipped approach to the PlayStation 3 during his keynote address on Thursday. Besides confirming that the next PlayStation would use the "Cell" processor being jointly developed by Sony, IBM and Toshiba, House would only say that the PS3 will go on sale when it's ready, regardless of what Microsoft does with its planned successor to the current Xbox.

"Competitive movements will not be a factor in determining our launch plans," he said, maintaining that Sony will take as much time as necessary to deliver a groundbreaking product. "It's not good enough to deliver some iterative improvement to hardware that doesn't create a fundamentally better experience for the consumer."

House asked developers to focus on the PSP, Sony's upcoming handheld game player, and the PS2, which he maintained still has plenty of life left in it. Based on continued strong sales for the original PlayStation, House said game consoles can now have an effective lifespan of 10 years.

"There are some big potential gains for all of us in lengthening the lifecycle," he said. A longer console lifespan, House maintained, also increases the need for interim enhancements such as the EyeToy, the USB camera Sony introduced for the PS2 last year.

"We believe very strongly that hardware innovations shouldn't only come every five or six years," he said.