DigiTimes is citing Taiwanese manufacturing sources that suggest that Sony is actively working on PlayStation 4 and that the new console is set to be released in 2012 with an initial shipment of "at least" 20 million consoles. Amazingly, the report suggests that manufacturing will begin this year.
Little is being given away on the make-up of the new machine other than the idea that it boasts body-tracking technology along the lines of Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360. The source says that the console is being assembled by Foxconn and Pegatron Technologies in Taiwan, and reckons that the current PS3 is also being handled by the same manufacturers.
It's an interesting story, but on the face of it, the basic notion of a true next-gen PlayStation releasing within 18 months is ludicrous. PlayStation 3 has only become profitable for Sony relatively recently and the platform holder will be hoping for a substantial period of time in which to recoup the enormous losses they have incurred this console generation. In the here and now, PlayStation 3 has yet to dip below £199, where we would expect sales volumes to increase significantly. Closing this window of opportunity prematurely doesn't really make sense from any kind of commercial perspective.
The 2012 launch date also seems unrealistic for other reasons too. The video games business is notoriously indiscreet. We've known about PSP2 and a core part of its technical make-up since July 2009, and the new handheld has still yet to ship. Nintendo's E3 reveal for Wii U was spoiled extensively by developers and publishers talking to the press about the platform holder's own presentations, and in the here and now, information is slowly starting to trickle out about Microsoft's new console, set to be released no sooner than 2013.
On the flip-side, we have heard absolutely nothing about the development of PlayStation 3's successor. There have been no off-the-record briefings to journos, nothing of note emanating from developer sources and the contacts we have that work directly on PlayStation technology in terms of devtools and background software are still working on PSVita and PS3. To the best of our knowledge, nothing is happening right now that could see a major new hardware launch next year, and the basic idea that Sony's core engineering team having enough bandwidth to look after the development of PS4 so quickly after the lengthy gestation period of PSVita seems unlikely.
What gives the DigiTimes article some shred of credibility is its hints on a Kinect style interface. We know for a fact that SCEA research and development teams have spent a great deal of time and effort devising its own interpretation of Microsoft's "natural user interface", and indeed, there is even a patent describing Sony's ideas on body tracking, where a PlayStation Move-style controller is married up to a floor-based ultrasonic projector that can track players in 3D space. The idea is to introduce the core functionality that Kinect possesses, but at the same time make use of the inherent advantages that a handheld controller offers.
The other aspect that makes the report a touch more believable is the nature of the source itself. The Far East manufacturing base has become a major source for eerily accurate tech-based rumour-mongering: we knew about iPhone 4 and iPad 2 ahead of their obsessively-guarded reveals owing to leaks from the manufacturing facilities themselves, and of course, who can forget the fact that the PS3 Slim was on sale in a Philippines marketplace months before it was officially released, and many weeks before it made its official debut at gamescom 2009? In short, the Far East has offered up so many strange-but-true stories that it is difficult to readily discount anything from "manufacturing sources" so quickly.
The question of whether Sony could - in theory - launch a new console so quickly is an interesting topic in its own right. There have been murmurings that PlayStation 4 could simply be an evolution of the existing architecture. Developers are finally getting to grips with what makes PS3 special, they're embracing the power of the SPUs, so why not simply beef up Cell with, say, a dual core version of the main PPU processing core and dramatically increase the SPU count? Combine that with a significant RAM boost and an appropriately modern GPU and that would easily work as a fiercely powerful next-gen console.
It may sound simple enough, and it could cut-down the investment required in developing the new machine but at the same time it does dramatically over-simplify the challenges Sony faces in getting a new PlayStation out in the 2012 timeframe. Extensive SPU engineering has resulted in technically brilliant games like Uncharted 2, Killzone 3 and God of War III, but at the same time, the use of SPUs as parallel graphics processors in this age of cross-platform development has only really become popular owing to the comparative weakness of the RSX. Getting the graphics core right is a really significant challenge for Sony, and it's not going to be easy bearing in mind that Microsoft, with its DirectX 11 technology, is a key partner in defining the landscape of next-gen graphics rendering.
With Nintendo having laid out its next-gen plans, and Microsoft widely tipped to follow suit at next year's E3, it stands to reason that Sony is also devising its own hardware for the second HD console generation. A 2012 launch has some merit: in the Japanese market, it would be one-upping arch-rival Nintendo which is releasing Wii U in the same window, while Sony would have around a year's head-start over Microsoft in other territories in the next round of the console battle.
But when we have a situation where leading industry engineers such as John Carmack are openly questioning just how much the next-gen can offer in terms of an identifiable, worthwhile advantage over what we have now, it strongly suggests that the platform holders either need a new approach (as per Nintendo's tablet gambit) or else a technological leap that so large that it makes current generation games look old and obsolete, or better yet a combination of the two.
Getting the product right is the key to long-term success here, not necessarily launching first. Microsoft is taking its time in devising its own next-gen console, and the chances are that Sony will follow a similar strategy. While 2012 seems wildly optimistic for a full-on launch from either party, we should fully expect next year's E3 press conferences to be a whole lot more exciting than 2011's efforts...
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