PS3 - Technical Wizardry

Our thoughts on the tech demos.

One of the ways Sony chose to demonstrate the power of its PlayStation 3 console during today's unveiling was to use the tried and trusted tech demo. Indeed, it began by revisiting PlayStation 2 technical demonstration videos used to unveil that console, aiming to wow us with a significant increase in detail. And by significant we don't mean the difference in scale between a car and a bus; after a few minutes it felt like the difference between a car and a planet.

There were several demos, so we'll go through them one by one.

Most enjoyable and crowd-pleasing was the Rubber Duck demo, which reunited PlayStation followers with the little yellow bath toy used alongside a pair of toy submarines. Only this time he was in a much more detailed bath, the water catching the reflections of steel taps and the tiles on the wall illuminated on a sort of gradient toward the focus of the bathroom light, and as Sony Europe's Phil Harrison wiggled the control stick the little ducky swam giddily around the bath bobbing realistically and sending waves radiating out in every direction as he went.

Then Phil remarked that he looked lonely, and brought in a pair of toy boats. Each had four cannons and proceeded to merrily bomb the hell out of each other, tearing holes in the flapping sails which moved as realistically as you might be able to imagine, the ships and duck bobbing to and fro around the bath painting the portrait of an incredibly highly powered, high resolution system that handles detail of this sort as though it was a PlayStation 2 trying to render a system clock readout.

But he was still lonely, apparently. So then came a shower of a hundred of so more ducks, each individually rendered to the same level of detail. So many ducks in fact that one spilt over the side and tumbled to the ground. And then another shower of ducks, rendering the water almost invisible. It was like watching a ball pond overflow as a child tears through it, and it was awe-inspiring to see it done with such ease. "This uses a technique called LOD - lots of ducks," Harrison quipped, and a crowd buoyed - appropriately enough - by the at turns uplifting and technically exciting demo responded warmly.

Not content with that, Harrison then dragged out an EyeToy along with its creator, who proceeded to use plastic cups in his hands - represented in game by glass beakers - to scoop up water and chuck it around the bath.

The next demo, though, was even more exciting on a technical level. Going back to the Leaves PS2 demo, this time the various leaves numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and Harrison spoke of vortexes controlling the leaves in real-time, with 5.1 surround sound created in real-time. We were told that the PS3's Cell processor has so much power that every one of the leaves could have its own audio channel associated with it. The sight of these tornado-like towers of leaves twisting through the air was like watching an episode of Star Trek when the Enterprise stumbles upon some sort of astronomical phenomena that only happens once every thousands of years and Data gets a robo-hard-on.

We then moved on to a petrol station in the middle of a desert, which Harrison proceeded to blow up - from every angle imaginable, in slow motion, under different lighting conditions, and so forth. The Cell processor rendered volumetrically the explosion, thermal dynamics, heat, gas, smoke and fire. This wasn't, Harrison told us, an animation, but purely physics-based. The explosion blew the roof and front of the building apart, sending signs and broken roofing flying at all angles, tyres bouncing away and a ball of flame arcing into the sky.

Moving on again. Spider-Man 2 - a Sony Pictures film - was used to demonstrate the power of the PS3 quite often over the course of the two-hour conference, but here it was used at its subtlest level, with Dr Octopus actor Alfred Molina's face born again on the screen and rendered by the PS3. The shadows were realistic, the light reflected and transmitted through the ears - the way that your ears sometimes glow red as strong light hits them - and the skin was softly lit and subtly detailed, imperfections clearly visible, light bouncing off the eyeballs. It was almost convincing enough to be real. That final boundary has yet to be broken down, if you ask us, but this is as close as has ever been seen on a piece of consumer electronic equipment, and the animation of the face during a reworked dialogue sequence demonstrated a level of emotiveness that astounded.

Other tech demos - and there were quite a number - brought us to terms with the way the PS3 is capable of rendering light, organisms, organic environments and geometry. There were utterly convincing landscapes captured from space, forests that you could watch grow - which, it was noted, increased the possibility of players controlling characters who could actually change the environment around themselves dynamically - as well as shots from the next-generation Getaway game's London, which takes the idea of incidental detail to a new extreme.

Rather appropriately for a machine that threatens to require a pair of high-definition displays to take full advantage of, there were two high points during the tech demonstration phase, and both drew upon things for which gamers have a real fondness.

The first was an incredible blend of Spider-Man 2 film footage and, of all things, Gran Turismo. It began with Spidey's pizza delivery sequence, arcing through the skies on webs, before diving down to the ground where GT cars vied for position on the track. Spidey swept down and grabbed a pair of kids out of the road just in time for the GT cars to sweep past themselves, one of them spinning out of the way in the background. The focus then switched to the GT cars which Spidey swung over the top of, and it was a convincing blend. It almost looked like it had been done that way in the first place. If this truly is the power of PS3, the limit now really is just developers' imaginations.

Less imaginative but always destined to rock the crowd was the final tech demo we're going to talk about, which emerged later during Square Enix president Yoichi Wada's address: a reworking of the introductory sequence to Final Fantasy VII, with what felt like Advent Children levels of character detail. Beginning in an alley with a girl, the camera swept out accelerating away into the street, up into the sky and high above Midgar, where it then slowly arced back and descended toward a train arriving at a station, from which hero Cloud deftly leapt and then looked up menacingly. The whole thing was, but for a few flash cuts to the train that punctuated the trail, one continuous shot, and the level of detail was extraordinary.

Square Enix isn't remaking Final Fantasy VII for PlayStation 3, Wada-san noted, but PlayStation 3 is definitely remarkable. NVIDIA spoke of the difficulty in articulating detail levels using the PS3's high-powered RSX graphics chip. By the end of the conference we knew how they felt.

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