A couple of days ago, I noted on the Digital Foundry Twitter feed that enterprising coders had found a way to make the PlayStation 3 significantly outperform the Blu-ray spec by enabling video playback of 1080p material at 60 frames per second. The average Blu-ray movie runs at 24FPS while the system's 1080i conformity gives it a notional top-end of 30FPS. But PlayStation 3 goes way beyond that, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
The story kicks off with the release of the Sanyo HD2000 camera. Capable of recording 1080p60 video directly into MP4 files, enterprising souls on the Doom9 video forum set about getting clips from this camera to play on standalone BD players, despite the fact there was little hope of it actually working. However, for a while now hackers have been working on reverse-engineering the AVCHD format – the consumer-level sibling to full Blu-ray used by a multitude of HD video cameras. Coder "DeanK", author of the MultiAVCHD authoring tool found that with some effort, clips from the Sanyo camera would work within his tool when played back on PS3.
Seeing as my company creates a 1080p60 capable capture system, this proved to be intriguing for me, especially seeing as we can produce this exquisite level of video, but have no consumer-level platform on which to play it! The PS3 XMB held some promise, but despite some efforts at 1080p60 encodes to promote WipEout HD, actual picture quality was distinctly mediocre and higher-end encoding would cause plenty of hiccups. Using DeanK's tools, I found that the PS3's Blu-ray/AVCHD decoder had a clear performance edge over the XMB, allowing for smoother playback of more ambitious files.
The encoding required is somewhat specialist and I had to get it done out of house, but regardless, there's now a downloadable demo you can try for yourself – assuming you have a 1080p screen of course. So, if you have 857MB of bandwidth to spare, go here, download, unzip and copy to a USB flash drive (burning to optical disc won't work without patching some files) making sure that the AVCHD folder is on the root of the drive. Put the drive into the PS3, click on the AVCHD icon on the XMB in the video section, sit back and watch Capcom's excellent Devil May Cry 4 intro play out at native 1080p running at 60 frames per second. The video itself was captured by our TrueHD system hooked up to an i7 PC with a top-of-the-line NVIDIA GTX295, allowing us to run the game effortlessly with all settings maxed out.
For content producers eyeing up PS3 for further Blu-ray defying tasks, it has to be stated that there are limitations. Some of the key techniques h264 implements to exact maximum quality use way too much processing power to be effective running at 60FPS in this extreme resolution. At the same time, the AVCHD and Blu-ray standards have inherent limitations in themselves compared to the full unfettered power of the core compression technology. Bottom line: you need to throw a lot more bandwidth at the problem to maintain picture quality, and in the case of pristine game video, you need a ton more compared to the average "real life" camera shot. Even the download here could do with a fair bit more bandwidth to match the original capture.
Regardless though, it remains the case that for PS3 to be able to do this at all is an excellent achievement, and brings home a hugely important factor about the console's long term future. In the fullness of a time, a smaller, slimmer PS3 will be one hell of a powerful – and hopefully cheap – media player, also capable of playing some damn good games too. With DivX adopting the Matroska (MKV) file format for its HD files, realistically it's only a matter of time before PS3 offers native support, making the console invaluable for playing just about any kind of media thrown its way.
Update: The PS3 certainly is full of surprises, and looks like I'm a bit ahead of my time with this demo. Turns out that while 1080p60 decoding is supported, the PS3 then goes about forcing the image to work only on a 1080i display. Force 1080p, and it then upscales the "nerfed" image! It took a while to figure that one out, especially as it defies logic: the PS3 is in effect adding to an already massive CPU burden by going through this bizarre process. So, for the time being, the raw video is supported but the displays are not... once there are more cameras like Sanyo HD2000 on the market, expect this to change.