TOKYO o151; Believing it has grabbed the lead in graphics technology, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCE) plans to develop a Creative Workstation line that makes full use of the company's Playstation2 technology and environment, according to SCE president Ken Kutaragi. Planned as an environment to develop digital entertainment content, Sony said it was forced to pursue the Creative Workstation because PCs and workstations are no longer powerful enough to serve as development platforms for digital content.
The Creative Workstation line will not compete directly with current workstations, but will be targeted to penetrate various specialized markets where digital content is created.
In announcing the follow-up to its popular Playstation game console last month, SCE said Playstation2 will break the limitations of the conventional game world by expanding into a world that involves music and movies, which Kutaragi described as computer entertainment. SCE also announced plans to make Playstation2 a terminal of wideband bit distribution through cable modems.
SCE will build Creative Workstations under a three-phase plan using technology developed for the Playstation2.
"In the past, workstations and PCs had more power than home game consoles, so we could use them as development tools. But when the power of Playstation 2 matches or surpasses their power, it becomes difficult to use them for development," said Kutaragi.
"Workstations and PCs always continue to evolve . . . but such a story is collapsing," he said. Using the X86 and Pentium processors as an example, Kutaragi claimed that the growth in the number of CPU transistors has become dull. "The number of transistors does not necessarily mean performance, but at least large number of transistors are needed to include large scale architecture," he said.
If PCs with a 400-MHz Celeron processor and several gigabytes of hard-disk storage satisfy most PC users, product differentiation loses meaning and only price talks, he said. Some PCs have broke $1,000 and dropped to $500 or less, and some are offered for free.
"The PC is losing its position as the technology driver; so are workstations," said Kutaragi.
"Can we continue to rely on workstations and PCs in the future for software development? If not, what will be the tool to incubate our digital entertainment?" As the solution, Kutaragi announced at the Microprocessor Forum on Wednesday (Oct. 6) that Sony will research high-performance processors and will develop workstations based on those processors.
Playstation2 uses four chips for the system's main processing. A chip Sony calls the Emotion Engine serves as the core CPU, a Graphic Synthesizer and sound synthesizer handle graphics and sound processing, and an I/O processor provides the first-generation Playstation environment and various interface functionality.
The Emotion Engine, developed jointly by SCE and Toshiba Corp., has 13 million transistors. The part's transistor count increased by 2.5 million since the the CPU was first announced at the ISSCC in February. "Not because some functions are added," Kutaragi said, "but it finally had that number of transistors after bug fixes, specification enhancement, etc."
SCE has begun selling a Playstation2 development tool, dubbed DTL-T10000, for about $19,000. While the development tool for the original Playstation was provided as an extension board for a PC or workstation, the DTL-T10000 is a separate unit, with programming and debugging modes, which can create graphics for Playstation2. Sony expects to sell a good number of the tool to software developers. The Creative Workstations will be a separate line of systems using some of the development tool technology, and Kutaragi said Sony is not concerned even to make a profit on the Creative Workstation systems. Instead, Sony is looking at the effort as SCE's R&D activity.
The Creative Workstation effort at present has three phases. For Phase 1, SCE intends to develop a workstation with about 10 times the performance of the development tool workstation, and to complete that work in 2000. The workstation will have the capability to handle graphics of 1,920 x 1,080/60p (progressive). SCE will not have time to develop new chips by 2000, so it will achieve the performance by using in parallel faster versions of the Emotion Engine and Graphic Synthesizer found in the Playstation2.
The Phase 2 workstation, scheduled to be introduced in 2002, will have 100 times the performance of the development tool workstation and will feature the Emotion Engine 2 and Graphic Synthesizer 2, each with an enhanced architecture over the current chips. The CPU will have 40 million transistors and will be fabricated on a 0.13-micron process. The workstation will handle the same 1,920 x 1,080 pixel graphics, and will have a flexible frame rate ranging from 24 to about 75 frames/second.
The Phase 3 workstation, scheduled to appear around 2005-2006, will have the Emotion Engine 3 and Graphic Synthesizer 3, which will have drastically changed architectures. As a result, the workstation will have 1,000 times performance of the development tool workstation, and will handle 4,000 x 2,000-pixel pictures at 24-to-120p. At this stage, Playstation3 will be taking a shape, Sony said.
The Phase 2 workstation will have real-time graphics production capability to handle movies, which could greatly change the movie production process, Sony said.
"We are going to raise the performance of Creative Workstations at a high pace," Kutaragi said. "So at a certain stage, it will have enough capability as a server for a mini-theater and at another stage it will have capability as a digital bit-stream transmitter at broadcast station."
Kutaragi said SCE is pursuing the workstations to support the creation of content. As such, SCE would be pleased to sell just 1,000 or 2,000 units a year, he said.
SCE and Sony together invested a total of about $1.1 billion on two fabs to establish a 0.18-micron process for the Emotion Engine and the Graphic Synthesizer. About $472 million was spent on the Emotion Engine's facility, which is a joint venture with Toshiba. About $660 million was spent on the fab in Nagasaki for the Graphic Synthesizer. "This investment will be recouped by selling Playstation2 on the consumer market," Kutaragi said. "We will continue to develop finer processes such as 0.15 micron and 0.13 micron to make chips shrink and to increase productivity."
Kutaragi said SCE's engineers have a very clear target when they develop process technology. "Process development without specific applications will make no sense," he said. "In Intel's case, it is very clear. They develop a process for a specific CPU. But even the process is fine, it makes no sense if it is developed for general purpose.
"Once such a finer process is established, we can make silicon as large as the limit of a stepper, say 20 x 20-mm or 22 x 22-mm chips. To develop such architecture is pure R&D. Pursuing desirable architecture for SCE's entertainment CPU and Graphic Synthesizer, we have a large freedom to challenge any architecture."
Kutaragi said SCE has no intention of entering the current workstation market with the Creative Workstation, but will aim to introduce the systems into the new sectors. "For example, movie theaters currently use film projectors, but in several years, they should be entering digital projectors," he said. "At that stage, servers for theaters will be a good target for our Creative Workstation." Once movie theaters are connected to backbone networks, it will be possible to distribute movies digitally to all connected theaters in one night.
"If we are pursuing future architecture, skilled, capable engineers will come to join us," said Kutaragi.