At the Develop conference in Brighton we met up with Paul Holman, SCEE’s vice president of research and development, and Kish Hirani, the company’s head of developer services, to talk about Sony’s new motion sensing controller. Among other things, they explained the roots of the technology and told us a little more about the hardware’s capabilities.
How long have you been working on this motion sensing controller?
Paul Holman: Well the controller aspect goes back some years.
As far back as the PS2 days, before PS3 launched?
PH: We have quite a heritage in either having no peripheral or unusual peripheral configurations. You only have to look back to even prior to EyeToy games. We had [SCE US R&D manager, special projects] Rick Marks working in this area and showing off stuff. This isn’t just this year’s big thing for Sony, it’s something that we’ve got an awfully long heritage of working in. If you look back at the ECTS [European Computer Trade Show] we used to have a stand. One year, a couple of years before EyeToy, we had Rick Marks there and he’d just joined and he was working on a camera for PS2 and some props, so you can even trace back the origins of some of this to the ‘90s. It’s just that it has taken time and there’s been some nice new technology we’ve been able to leverage.
Is Sony on track to meet the spring 2010 release date announced at E3?
PH: I think the main thing is that there are several elements to a big release. You need to have the hardware side of things, and we’re in that phase of refining the hardware. We’re working with developer teams and with each iteration we ask for their feedback, so that’s why we’re hesitant about having the prototypes we have filmed because they will probably change because developers will say, ‘Actually, let’s have this button configuration’, so we’re working out what the optimal number of buttons is and where they should be… But on the hardware side of things, the manufacturing side of things, that’s our forte as a company and we’re on track for spring, so mainly it’s about ensuring there’s a good line of software to support that.
Will the controller launch with a selection of first part games?
PH: We don’t know yet.
But do you feel that it’s Sony’s role to showcase what the hardware can do and help out its development partners?
PH: I think we’re all big grown up companies so all the games teams – our own and external – are going to have something new. All we can really do is show what we’ve learnt from our own teams and try and feed that back to the community.
What’s unique about Sony’s motion control system and how does it compare to what’s already in the marketplace and what you’ve seen of Project Natal?
Kish Hirani: Our primary focus is developers and what they really want for it. They have the added advantage that they’re generally multiplatform developers… Good multiplatform developers straight away compare this with other platforms more than we do and they say, ‘Wow, this is bloody precise when it maps you when you’re moving in front of it’.
More precise than MotionPlus and Natal?
PH: I think we can just say that it’s very, very precise. People are going to be able to take games in this space forward because of the precision aspects.
KH: The classic example I give to people is that the most precise thing you can do is write your name using a [piece of] chalk on a blackboard. Try doing that with a mouse and it’s bloody difficult.
PH: The core elements are fairly straightforward. As I say they date back to the early ‘90s. It’s just having a really nice camera which works well with the PS3, which has the processing power to do some interesting things, and then combining that with the LEDs in the globes. The camera’s basically looking at where these globes are and what colour they are and doing things on that basis. Combine that with some gyro stuff we have in there and it can do the tracking and work out where things are going.
KH: [There are] a lot of technologies there. It’s very easy to dismiss the microphone on there. The mic is a multi-directional mic and it can sense you sitting there and speaking. Although the device doesn’t need to know that sort of information to find your position, you’ve got this extra information that it can jump to. So on the face of it, it looks like we’re just introducing a new controller, but when you look at the PS Eye, the mic, the visual libraries and everything combined, there are a lot of exciting things you can do with it.
PH: Ultimately I’m quite excited about seeing what the games are going to look like in six months or in a year’s time. At the moment some people have got some really strong ideas and other people are experimenting. It’s all going to come together in the next six months and it’s exciting.
KH: My team’s role ends up being, if you come to us with a great idea and if it’s possible we’ll help you make it happen.
Do you think it will be harder for developers to create multiplatform games that are compatible with all of the different motion sensing control systems?
PH: That’s down to the game designer or publisher. I think game designers always want to take advantage of the best aspects of whichever platform they’re targeting. All that we can try to do on our side is make more fun and interesting stuff that will help these game designers.
Sony has said that all genres of games will be compatible with PS3’s motion sensing controller. Is the system being designed with core and casual gamers equally in mind?
PH: All we can speak of is the experience we have with the game development community and we are seeing a spectrum of games. [Developers] are experimenting with it and looking to see what they can add to their games. We’ve got a lot of building blocks in the SDKs and it’s almost like a play box [in] that designers have to think about what they’re going to do and how it’s going to work for their game. Anything’s possible really. We’ve tried to make that ‘anything is possible’ as easy as possible. One of the things we pointed out is that you’ve got the motion control and you’ve also got the PlayStation Eye, and we have a lot of libraries in this space already to do with facial recognition, spatial recognition, gesture recognition and all of these little elements. All we can provide are these Lego blocks. At the end of the day game designers and developers have to think about how they put them together and how they make something that’s unique and compelling.