TOKYO Microsoft Corp.'s decision to jump into the game console business is a testament to the PC industry's belief that it has the technological underpinnings to take on the likes of Sony Computer Entertainment's Playstation 2. But observers say Microsoft and its allies will be hard-pressed to match the support SCE has won from the software developer community.
SCE has made lofty claims about the new level of realism in computer graphics that will be ushered in by its powerful new graphics subsystem. Playstation 2 is powered by two custom-made processors, the 128-bit Emotion Engine CPU with two channels linking it to Direct Rambus DRAMs, and a fast graphics processor with embedded RAM. SCE claims the graphics subsystem will provide a floating-point performance of 6.2 Gflops, and can churn out some 75 million polygons per second.
Yet some analysts and other observers in the PC industry question whether Playstation 2 can meet its performance claims. When the specs are brought down to earth, they say, PC-based graphics will soon match or beat those of Playstation 2. That in turn will give Microsoft the ammunition to take on SCE and other console makers, presumably with a Windows-based system.
Nvidia Corp., which Microsoft has chosen as the supplier of graphics chips for its so-called X-Box, believes it will best Playstation 2's performance this year, said company officials in a recent interview.
"By the time Playstation 2 hits the U.S. [in fall 2000], we will have far surpassed it," said Dan Vivoli, senior vice president of marketing for Nvidia (Santa Clara, Calif.). "For consoles, [Playstation 2] represents a totally new level of performance, and gets them to the point where it's similar to the best PC graphics you can get. But that's a snapshot in time."
While confidence is high in terms of hardware performance, it will likely be harder to match the software support of console makers. SCE's huge success with its original Playstation has turned the company into a high-volume juggernaut, which makes it all the more attractive to game developers. And while SCE can rally developers to come out with games for its leading-edge console, the PC games being developed today are basically designed for yesterday's systems.
"Software developers rarely develop for the best [PC] hardware on the market," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with Microdesign Resources, publisher of Microprocessor Report. "They aim for the installed base, where the volume is."
But others point out that the hottest-selling games for the PC now incorporate advanced programming techniques that reach into the realm of artificial intelligence and physics. That could spur Microsoft to accelerate its plans to support these features in its DirectX application programming interface (API), which could pose a new challenge to console makers.
Improvements to graphics chips provide most of the raw horsepower for PC graphics. Three years ago, about two-thirds of the brute-force 3-D processing was transferred from the PC's CPU to the graphics chips when companies like ATI Technologies and Nvidia started handling the set-up calculations as well as the rendering functions, Glaskowsky said. Before then, this set-up function was still being handled by the system CPU, and performance was considered too slow.
Free the CPU
More recently, 3-D chip companies have started to transfer the final stage of the so-called graphics pipeline to their newer designs. Known as the geometry stage or transform and lighting the chips can now handle all the lighting calculations and coordinate-transformation operations and thus free up the CPU even more.
"If the [Nvidia] GeForce or GeForce 2 is transforming and lighting and drawing 12.5 million polygons per second, the Pentium II or Pentium III is almost idle," said David Kirk, chief scientist for Nvidia.
This is a key difference between the Playstation 2 graphics subsystem and the more advanced PC graphics. One weakness of the Playstation 2, argues Nvidia, is that the front-end of the graphics processing pipeline is being done by the Emotion Engine CPU instead of by the graphics processor.
Even though the Emotion Engine has a wide 128-bit datapath and superior floating-point performance, it will have to work hard to draw the polygons at a rapid rate while handling the transform and lighting sequence in the 3-D pipeline. For this reason, the 75 million polygon-per-second claim that SCE makes for Playstation 2 will in reality be lower, Kirk said.
"It's sort of how fast an engine revs if the clutch is in really fast," Kirk said. "But when it's in gear, you actually have to move the car. That's the difference between peak numbers and delivered numbers."
Playstation 2 is also different in that it is designed to display on a television instead of a PC monitor. For that reason, Sony was able to fit the 3-D frame buffer memory into the Graphics Synthesizer, which will allow it to achieve a much higher frame-buffer bandwidth and thus faster 3-D rendering than any PC graphics chip, Glaskowsky said.
Another advantage PC graphics chip companies believe they have is their ability to churn out new chip designs more regularly as opposed to game consoles that fix their designs for several years. Nvidia, for example, said it plans to introduce two chips a year one speed bump to an existing architecture and one new design based on finer design rules. Nvidia's current GeForce chip has 23 million transistors, and the next architecture scheduled to come out in the fall will have 50 million transistors, Vivoli said.
With graphics chips taking over the graphics pipeline, the CPU can concentrate on higher-level functions, such as better character animation and more realistic representations of moving objects. These are some of the areas where SCE claims to have taken a leadership role with its Emotion Engine CPU. But these features have also started to appear in PC games such as Half-Life and Unreal Tournament, observers said.
This is an area where a company like Intel can provide leadership. "Intel is not going to be in any bad way looking for things to spend cycles on," Vivoli said. "The geometry processing is the blue-collar work. It's a heavy-lifting problem and you're always better off doing it on a dedicated processor. And we've had Intel's cooperation with this. By taking away the grunt work from the CPU you're giving it stuff it ought to be doing."
In fact, both Intel and SCE as well as speakers from several universities will be giving advanced tutorials on how to bring a new sense of realism to computer games later this week at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif. The topics include enabling low-level behavior, such as obstacle avoidance, modeling of sensory perception, emotion modeling, learning appropriate behavioral responses and infusing characters with knowledge and reasoning abilities.
PCs sit and wait
In the PC domain, however, it can take a long time for such leading-edge features to trickle down to software developers. Because most software developers are interested in selling to the installed PC base, "it'll be 2002 before we see many PC games that require high-performance geometry processing," said analyst Glaskowsky.
And even though Microsoft has succeeded in rallying game developers, graphics chip makers behind its Direct3D API, game developers still devote most of their attention to consoles. "Console games outsell PC games by a huge margin," Glaskowsky said. "Where there's more money to be made, greater investments in time and talent become possible."
Nvidia's Vivoli conceded that developers have flocked to Playstation 2. "It would be hard to argue that Playstation 2 doesn't attract attention from developers," he said. "The developers have been distracted by it for the past six months to year and a half. But it's always been the case that there's more content developer attention on consoles because the volumes are higher."
In Japan, Playstation 2 has already become something of a social phenomenon. The console has received an avalanche of media coverage, and there were reports about lines outside retail stores forming two days before the unit's March 4 introduction. In its first two days of sales, SCE sold nearly 1 million units.
By floating its own console platform, Microsoft appears intent on stealing some of this limelight. But Microsoft will have to work hard to match the more advanced programming tools from console makers like SCE. Because it takes a longer time for Microsoft, software developers and 3-D chip makers to reach a consensus on new features to support, Microsoft's Direct3D APIs are usually a step behind.
"Sony is likely to provide API support for advanced 3-D modeling techniques such as Bezier patches well before Microsoft does because Sony made the Emotion Engine good at Bezier patches from the beginning," Glaskowsky said. "It'll take Microsoft perhaps a year to get this technology into Direct3D, and when they do, it will have to be applicable to a wide variety of processors and graphics chips."
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