Archive for March, 2005

Sony PS3 To Go With Standards

Monday, March 14th, 2005

In a move which went mostly unnoticed because it was brought up in a general discussion about the new IBM/Toshiba/Sony CELL processor, but is a dramatic shift in strategy, Sony disclosed at the GDC that the next generation of PlayStation (the so-called “PS3″) will adopt open, or at least popular, APIs as part of its architecture.

Sony will be using OpenGL ES for the 3D graphics API, NVIDIA’s Cg shader language, and the development tools will also incorporate support for the COLLADA format for art asset interchange so that developers can share 3D art among multiple platforms.

Sony Computer Entertainment’s (SCE) manager of developer relations, Mark DeLoura, in describing the software components of Sony’s implementation of the CELL processor, indicated that Sony wanted to enable the use of familiar APIs, and provide tools which run on “popular operating systems”.  Presumably that means Windows, but might also include Linux – he wouldn’t elaborate.

DeLoura explained that Sony chose OpenGL ES over straight OpenGL for a number of reasons, key among them that OpenGL is top heavy and includes a lot of baggage which game developers don’t need. OpenGL ES is also specifically designed for interactive 3D applications, games key among those, and it offers a much smaller memory footprint. Most importantly, according to DeLoura – OpenGL ES is an industry standard. He also stressed that SCE is working closely with the Khronos group to position ES as a good choice for real-time interactive graphics.

DeLoura did leave open the option to provide or use other APIs for other applications of the PS3. Again, no further details on what applications.

In terms of Sony’s choice of Cg as the shading language for PS3 development, DeLoura explained that NVIDIA and SCE are partners in this effort, and that Cg was chosen because it is widespread in use, there are many samples of how to program Cg, and of course, there are a number of books which describe Cg programming. It doesn’t hurt that Cg is similar to other shader languages, nor that Cg offers an extensive standard library.

Those items, combined with the announcement that the same API would be available to program both the PPE and SPE components of the CELL processor, were well received by the programmers in the audience.

For artists, especially game artists, Sony’s support of COLLADA should be very welcome. As next generation game development progresses, the sheer amount of 3D art required for such titles will be incredible, as will the number of tools needed to work such art. It’s unrealistic in terms of manpower and resources to create each separate but similar pieces of art for multiple platforms, or even maintain multiple instances of the same art. Thus, the idea behind COLLADA is to have a core set of 3D art assets which can then be shared collaboratively between users and applications, and converted as needed to the target platforms and uses.

COLLADA is open source, not proprietary, and it is also cross platform. Several major tools vendors, including Alias, Discreet, and Softimage, have already indicated that they supporting the COLLADA effort, meaning that they will or are already providing COLLADA importers and exporters. DeLoura stressed that Sony has supported COLLADA since its release at SIGGRAPH last summer.

This move to open standards and popular APIs is a dramatic change for Sony, which has traditionally espoused proprietary efforts and interfaces – the ATRAC codec and the PS2 programming interfaces among them. However, it’s potentially a brilliant move too, as many developers already have extensive familiarity with OpenGL, and increasingly OpenGL ES, as well as NVIDIA’s Cg shader language. This reduces the learning curve.

Further, it opens the possibility that after the PS3’s launch, the platform could be opened to general development to anyone, not just game developers. This is in marked contrast to Xbox, which looks likely to be a closed system to anyone other than licensed game developers.

When DeLoura was asked about this possibility, he expressed his hope it would materialize, but added that he thought it was even possible in the near term to see PSP development opened up to the masses.

Licensed PS3 developers get an out of the box compiled, debugger, and integrated development environment (IDE), and performance analysis tools are available too. Sony predicts that extensive middleware will be available to assist developers with key functionality, and faster to-market times.

Whether Sony’s new philosophy on open standards will extend to open development remains to be seen, of course, but by making this commitment, and shifting away from proprietary APIs, they give OpenGL ES a tremendous boost, potentially to the detriment of Direct3D and D3Dm.

GDC 2005 – Microsoft Keynote

Monday, March 14th, 2005

GDC 2005 opened with a keynote by Microsoft Vice President and Chief XNA Architect, J Allard. The highly choreographed presentation started with Allard’s reminiscing about playing pong and sharing the respect and admiration he had for Atari’s Nolan Bushnell, and ended with Samsung and Microsoft giving away 1,000 23” HDTV LCD televisions to lucky audience members. Audience members were noticeably excited when they left the keynote, especially those wearing the HDTV-winning yellow badges, myself included.

The real meat of Allard’s keynote however, was the theme of the “HD Era”, which is Microsoft’s vision for the future of entertainment. In case you wanted to know, Microsoft has dubbed our current era as the 3D Era.

Allard identified three trends that are with us now (at least among early adopters), namely high definition (HD), being connected, and self expression. These trends are the ones leading us into the HD Era.

HD refers to the big picture – 16:9 display ratios, wide screen, more detail, more visual content, while being connected ties into the growing adoption of cell phones, Internet connections, broadband, WiFi, ubiquitous e-mail access, and more. As examples of self expression Allard pointed out that current technology users strive for things to help them express themselves, with things as simple as ring tones, as personal as tattoos and body piercings, or as involved as tricking out a car with custom rims, paint jobs, and engine tweaks. Kitting out of cars is a very popular feature in racing video games as well, according to Allard.

Allard contrasted the 3D Era to the forthcoming HD Era as follows:

3D Era HD Era
Online as novelty Online as necessity
Mass entertainment Personal entertainment
Wired Wireless
Multiplayer Multiplatform
On the disc On the disc and on demand
Communities consume Communities create

Although Allard said he could not discuss Xenon (the next version of Xbox) at the keynote, he said all would be revealed at E3 in May. However, he intimated that the next Xbox would truly usher in the HD Era and offered a lot of buzz words about what Xenon would offer to users, such as “designed with software in mind”, “balance”, “power’, “headroom”, and “familiarity”. Hopefully the description offered at E3 will have less fluff and more substance.

To eliminate many of the hurdles that exist in having the average consumer adopt technology such as the Xbox (and more importantly, Xenon), Microsoft is working on standardizing interfaces to provide consistency in operation of devices and games – and more specifically, consistent across all HD games running on Microsoft products. Allard proceeded to provide some examples of the new user interface he referred to as “Xbox Guide”. He showed how the Guide could be used to communicate with other players on-line, how it stored biographical information about the user (including gaming achievements and statistics), and how it allowed for customization with features such as custom music for games – another feature Allard said that research showed as being a key selling point for a number of major games.

To enable more personalization, Xbox Guide will also allow developers to sell features and add-ons, such as car mods, via microtransaction payment, thus extending Xbox into an eCommerce platform. Music can be purchased on-line via the same mechanism.

Allard’s goal is to have the next generation platform be so popular that it would be possible to sell 20 million units of a given game title instead of the 2004 record of 2 million.

However, in order to make that happen, developers need to develop ever more complex and challenging titles and content for such new platforms, and with development staffs and budget already blooming beyond control, that is a potential pitfall.

Tying into this, earlier in the week Microsoft announced the XNA Studio development system – a tool which Allard said will help developers develop games for the next Xbox and for Windows systems by allowing teams to better collaborate and significantly streamline their development efforts. He added that a beta of XNA Studio would be available at Microsoft’s web site in April, and that at next year’s GDC keynote he would ensure that every attendee received a copy of the latest beta release in their bags.

Every developer we spoke to at GDC complained about the incredible complexity of managing the sort of project necessary to produce next generation games, If XNA Studio delivers all that Allard promises, it will be a real boon to developers.

In terms of the Xbox Guide, one certainly can’t argue with the fact that there is too much user interface disparity across games today, but having Microsoft impose interface “standards” doesn’t seem like an ideal solution either. But Microsoft usually sees things rather differently when it comes to “standards”. For example, during his presentation, Allard referred to Windows as an “Innovation Engine”, something a lot of developers in surrounding seats chuckled at – but he has a point of sorts. Microsoft’s brute force approach to creating de facto standards has forced developers to focus on Windows as a key development platform – kicking and screaming all the way, mind you, and with XNA, it ties in efforts to develop games for Xbox too.

But, the fact that you still cannot reliably get a popular game to run across plethora of PC configurations is a testament to the inherent instability of large, complex systems with variable components, no matter how many de facto standards are part of the equation.

Whether Allard’s and Microsoft’s vision of the HD Era comes to fruition will be determined by the market, but it’s rarely safe to bet against Microsoft when they set themselves to achieve large change. People discounted the Xbox when Microsoft first announced that effort – those people are not laughing at Microsoft now.

The Days My Mobile World Stood Still

Monday, March 14th, 2005

Admit it – you’re in love with, or at least heavily enamored of, your portable communication devices. Be it a PDA, smart phone, or ordinary cell phone. And, if you are like most of the rest of the world’s mobile communicators, your mobile device is your lifeline to the rest of the world.

It gets worse if you have a truly smart mobile phone device, such as T-Mobile’s Sidekick II – a GSM/GPRS/MMS device I became a proud owner of a few months ago. The Sidekick II [see photo] is a small engineering marvel – with a nice, big screen which can be swiveled out to access a full keyboard. The device can be programmed to check and download mail from a regular POP3 mailbox, and is amazingly easy to type on. Applications for purchase include an SSH terminal program which allows folks like myself to securely sign into our Linux servers to perform management tasks. On top of that, you can synchronize it with your Outlook address book, task list, and calendar. And, it even takes photos (crappy ones, but photos nonetheless).

The Sidekick II has become a pop icon of sorts, with pop tarts Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton openly flaunting theirs (mind you, Paris did have her Sidekick content hacked recently, revealing star’s phone numbers, topless photos of herself, and a variety of other personal information revealed). The device has also been featured in music videos. But even non-cool people such as myself own them and love them.

With the Sidekick II I found I no longer had to lug a notebook computer around with me everywhere, as I could deal with a majority of my e-mail via the keypad. My only trauma would occur when traveling to places where the GPRS connection was unavailable (such as roaming on AT&T in San Juan, or back home on the island of Bonaire). But when that trauma occurs, it results in twitchy fingers, constant checking of the phone to see if maybe it was just a bad signal, etc.

So imagine my surprise when Sunday night in San Francisco, the night before the Game Developers Conference (GDC), and ironically the GDC Mobile conference as well, when I lose my data signal – my connection with the world. I go back to my hotel room, pull out my notebook and try to connect to the Desktop Interface for my Sidekick – no-go. Panic starts to set in. I contact T-Mobile support. They tell me to wait a little and try again. I do, and no change. I decide to let the issue sit overnight, but in the morning, no change.

I arrive at the GDC, and I see a number of people with blank, glazed looks in their eyes – all of them are trying to get data out of their Sidekicks. Some are shaking the devices, and others just stare forlornly at the screen, as if the device might take pity on them and thus start to work again.

There was no change on Monday. T-Mobile advises clients there is a problem, but it is being worked on, and tries to placate Sidekick users by telling them that they can still use the Sidekick to make or place calls and do SMS messaging. The fact that if that’s all we wanted to do we would have gotten a more mundane phone is lost on them.

Tuesday – still no data. Finally inquiring with Danger (the maker of the Sidekick and operator of the Sidekick data servers) indicates that their servers crashed in a big way, and that they would definitely have them operational by Wednesday. Wednesday rolls by and still no joy. The tone of message posts by fellow Sidekick devotees on the HipTop web site run by Danger turns decidedly nasty. Depression has set in among many users.

Statement from Danger’s PR Department:

Danger and T-Mobile regret any inconveniences experienced by Sidekick customers as a result of an identified technical issue that has been limiting customer access to data services since Sunday, March 6.  Voice and SMS functions on the Sidekick are unaffected.

Danger engineers have put fixes in place, and expect data performance to improve throughout the day on March 8th; and full service to be restored by tomorrow morning, March 9th.

As I write this it is now midday Thursday, and I can now finally get into the web site to view the data which is supposed to be on my phone, and can synchronize that with Outlook.

But my phone still won’t connect to the server, so I am still in a data black hole when it comes to my Sidekick II. So, maybe later today I will find data Nirvana again. Or maybe not. One can only hope…

Fortunately, I have had my notebook as a back-up solution – it’s not nearly as convenient as the Sidekick, but at least it works, and San Francisco is raging with free WiFi. I also made sure years ago to set up redundant mailboxes on mail servers I control and manage, so unlike countless other poor sods who had tossed all devices but their Sidekicks (and were bemoaning that fact on-line), I was not locked out of four or five days of e-mail.

But still, this was (and still is) a real eye opener. We have come to count on most technology as dependable and stable, and forget that all systems are inherently unreliable (Windows helps remind of this – not sure whether we should be thankful for that though). So when an event like a multi-day data black out occurs, we go into shock, followed by withdrawal.

So what can one do to mitigate such future, and inevitable data black outs? Here are my suggestions:

– Don’t put your data communication eggs all in one basket, and allow for multiple ways to contact others, check your mail, and be reachable by others.

– Use redundant mail boxes and redundant communications devices (like remembering what your long distance calling card number is)

– Don’t get rid of your notebook computer just yet.

– And keep pens and paper at hand for when all technology fails at the same time

The final lesson I learned from this experience is that even a cell phones have a soft reboot function (affectionately referred to as the three-finger-salute on PCs) – for the Sidekick II, hold done the “@”, “0”, and “1” buttons all at the same time.

Ironically, just as I finished this column, my data service came back. Would it have come back if I hadn’t written this? Next up, conspiracy theory and causality…