Birth of a Station


In 1995, while writing the first VRML textbook, I was given the gift of a brand-new Pentium 90 MHz machine, kitted out with Microsoft’s industrial-strength Windows NT, and a yet-to-be released 3D graphics card, capable of incredible feats of display.  I was thrilled to find my computer could draw 10,000 polygons (the basic triangular elements of 3D graphics) to the screen each second, making short work of the uncomplicated VRML worlds common in the early days of the Web.  Today, Sony releases its long-awaited Playstation2 videogame console, minimally capable of drawing 10,000,000 polygons to the screen each second.


While advances in computing have become so commonplace they hardly rate an eye-flutter, the rate of improvement in computer graphics in the last few years is truly singular.  I had dinner with the VP of a graphics company two years ago, and he casually remarked that his field was accelerating its own performance at a rate of Moore’s Law cubed.  (In rough terms, Moore’s Law states that computers get twice as fast every eighteen months.  The graphics folks are producing an eight-fold performance increase in the same period of time.)  Doing the math, this 3D revision of Moore’s Law predicts that every five years, computer graphics should improve in performance a thousand-fold.  My own experience over the last half-decade confirms this.


The Playstation2 is hardly alone.  For $250 you can get a card for your PC which gives it roughly the same performance as Sony’s latest toy, and graphics chip companies are engaged in a wild-leap frog to see who can deliver more bang for the buck.  Without an end in sight, it looks as though our computers are about to cross an important threshold in performance, one which begins to blur the boundaries between “real” and “synthetic” images.  Alvy Ray Smith, one of the pioneers of computer graphics (now toiling away at Microsoft’s research lab) told Howard Rheingold that “reality is eighty million polygons a second.”  To recreate scenes indistinguishable from reality, the computer needs to send that many of the tiny triangles to the screen.


We’re less than two years away from reaching that target, and there’s no sign that things are slowing down.  Quite the contrary.  The Playstation2, rather than being just another “cool” videogame platform, is actually the birth of a new kind of home computer, sending shockwaves far beyond the US $7 billion game industry, out into the $100 billion world of home computing.  There’s a sea-change taking place.


For twenty years, the twin pillars of Microsoft and Intel have set the standard for the home computer.  It began life as the poor relation of the office computer, with a small screen, slower processor, and less memory.  Gradually, it acquired sound and video capabilities office workers didn’t need to do their spreadsheets or answer their email, and by the time that the Web came along, the home computer was ascendant, boasting more far more power than the vast majority of office machines.  By then, home computers were touted as game machines, and with titles like DOOM and Quake reaching PC users long before they made their way to the video game consoles, everyone wanted a machine that would deliver eye-popping graphics, the high-fidelity sound, and a whopping hard-disk drive to store all of those games.  Intel kept churning out faster chips to keep up with game players’ insatiable desires for better performance, designing special high-speed connections for graphics cards that kept upping the ante on the possible.  All of this came with a hefty price tag: the typical “high-end” home computer costs between $1500 and $2000, a price tag that’s remained consistent even as the power of these systems has climbed toward the sky.


It’s Sony’s intention to short-circuit this trend, by producing a platform that’s inexpensive – just $300, likely dropping to $199 by next Christmas – and more than powerful enough to handle the most demanding 3D games for the next few years.  Sony’s design for the PS2 is both sophisticated and elegant, comprised four separate processors: the “Emotion Engine”, a microprocessor far more sophisticated than the Pentium III; a “Graphics Synthesizer” capable of blasting polygons to the television; and two “Vector Units”, which haven’t been seen before except on exotic supercomputers such as Cray’s Y-MP.  It’s not just a videogame console, it’s a cheap supercomputer.


The incredible complexity of the PS2 is also Sony’s Achilles’ heel.  Manufacturing difficulties with the Emotion Engine have forced Sony to cut back on the number of PS2s which will ship before Christmas – not that a shortage has ever made any hot toy anything but hotter (consider the Furby), but, more alarmingly, game programmers, reared in a world where they only had to worry about one processor on a console are now recoiling in horror as they struggle through the elements of parallel processing, high-performance computing architectures and technical documentation that has been politely described as “obscure.”


Not that any of this is really slowing Sony down.  It may be a momentary speed bump, but the Japanese consumer electronics and media giant has its eyes squarely on the prize: the conquest of the living room.  The PS2 is a Trojan Horse; sold as a videogame system which doubles as the family DVD player (an incredibly wise decision on Sony’s part, and one which will cost them dearly as they cannibalize their own DVD player sales), but it’s also got the USB and iLink (Sony’s name for FireWire) ports which have become ubiquitous on modern PCs.  It will be trivial for a PS2 owner to attach a keyboard and mouse to the USB port, and a disk drive to the high-speed iLink port.  Suddenly the PS2 becomes a full-featured home computer – for about a thousand dollars less than you’d be paying for a similar Compaq or HP.  All you need is a connection to the Internet – and Sony’s thought that out, too.  In February, Sony Japan will begin to roll out a high-speed wireless service for the PS2.  For about $50 a month, Japanese gamers will get next-generation wireless networking, bringing a megabit of bandwidth to their videogame consoles.  It’s likely we’ll see something similar in the US about a year after that.


Microsoft, despite its continuing legal troubles, hasn’t been sleeping as Sony put the knife to its throat.  It knows that the face of home computing is about to change: big PCs are out; tiny, powerful game machines are in.  In March, with a tremendous amount of hype, Microsoft announced its answer to the PS2, the “X-Box.”  Microsoft promises X-Box will deliver 10x the performance of the PS2 (which keeps it right on track in the new corollary to Moore’s Law), definitively crossing the line between computer generated simulation and hard-to-tell-if-it’s-virtual realism.  To make the X-Box a reality, Microsoft is partnering with Intel (who needs to win this battle just as badly as Microsoft) and upstart video chip developer Nvidia, who swept in from obscurity a little over a year ago to become the kings of the computer graphics world.  The X-Box is still a year away (if everything goes as planned) but it’s already a battle royale, fought in the video arena.


Both Sony and Microsoft are playing for keeps; a loss would devastate either company, perhaps fatally.  (A full quarter of Sony’s revenues come from the Playstation, while almost half of Microsoft’s revenues derive from home computer users.)  The strangest thing about this battle of giants is Microsoft is the champion of open standards, encouraging developers to write X-Box titles without requiring them to pay any licensing fees.  In comparison, Sony charges a minimum of $25,000 for access to the documentation and technology of the Playstation2, plus a hefty license fee on every game sold.  Of course, those X-Box developers will be using pricey Microsoft development tools to create their games, but, by any standard, it’s a great bargain, and it means that anyone will be able to develop their own video games – not just the well-funded few who kowtow to Sony, Nintendo, or Sega.  With tight controls the titles made available for the PS2, Sony might find itself with another Betamax on its hands, while Microsoft may be creating the new VHS.


Even if Sony loses this round (and no one wants to wager which way this battle will turn), they’ve already set their sites on  the Playstation3, to be released five years from now.  Sony promises it will be a thousand times faster than the PS2.  I have every reason to believe them.