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E3: SCEE's Phil Harrison talks PlayStation 3

Everyone expected PlayStation 3 to be quite impressive, but many people were shocked at just how much of a leap ahead of current-gen technology was showcased by Sony at its events here in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday. The reaction has, however, been mixed; those who saw the real-time demos in person have been left jaws agape, while those who didn't are generally highly sceptical of Sony's claims.

It's perhaps unsurprising that it turned out like this - after all, Sony could be accused of acting like the boy who cried wolf in the last generation, when PlayStation 2 and its much-hyped Emotion Engine turned out to be rather less impressive than Ken Kutaragi's rhetoric and a number of pre-rendered demonstrations might have suggested.

If PS3 really is a subterfuge - and to be honest, we don't believe for a moment that it is - then Phil Harrison would be one of the chief architects of the conspiracy. The head of Sony's development efforts in Europe, Harrison stands behind many of the most impressive demos and game trailers seen so far on PS3. We caught up with him at E3 to find out more about the new console's hardware, the software we've seen so far - and to ask the burning question about how much of it was real-time. One question on the lips of many people at the moment: how much of what we saw in the PlayStation 3 demos was actually running in real-time?

Phil Harrison: Everything in the demos was real-time.

And what about the game footage clips?

Not all of that - in fact, none of it was real-time because it was all running off video. If you make a presentation to two and a half thousand people, you're going to put some of it on video just to be on the safe side.

I've been asked this question a lot. The way we put those videos together, everything was done to specification. Everything was done to PS3 spec. Virtually everything used in-game assets; some things were rendered.

How representative of what we're actually going to be seeing in PS3 games were those videos?

I think very. I think depending on the game, different games took a different approach to their way of expressing what the games are like - but clearly, something like Motor Storm uses more cinematic, replay-like cameras than you would ever enjoy in-game. So that makes a big difference... But everything is done to spec.

A fairly significant number of the games we saw - including many of the most impressive ones - were from European studios. Is this indicative of SCEE perhaps focusing more on preparing for next-gen than other territories?

I just think we had great stuff to show! Yeah, I'm really proud of the way the European content has been received, and I'm delighted with the response to Heavenly Sword, Motor Storm and Killzone in particular.

But even things like The Getaway technical test - and I was at pains to point out that this was not Getaway PS3, this was what happens when a team rolls off a game and we start getting them thinking about what is their vision for taking that technology and scaling it up. I think it was a good A to B comparison, because people know what Getaway looks like on PS2, and then they were able to ramp that up on to PS3 - albeit on very early prototype hardware, so it was a bit painful along the way for them! I thought that was a great example.

So The Getaway was one of the things that was running on real hardware?

Yeah, good example - I mean, you could see actually, the way that those cameras worked. That zoom-in camera was done in real-time to capture the kind of video-like footage that we had.

Some of the developers who worked on demos for the launch have said that even those aren't running on hardware approaching the full power of the final unit - so what percentage of the full performance was that running on?

It's really hard to say, because as technology gets more and more complicated, there's no concept of the "perfect" engine. We used to say on 16-bit that a game used 90 per cent of the machine's power, or Gran Turismo uses, you know, 94 per cent of PlayStation 1's power... There's no concept of the perfect game engine that uses everything. So it's hard to say.

We're thinking more in terms of the actual hardware - the clock speed of the chips, and so on.

It varies between developers, because we've got different variants of the hardware with different performance characteristics. Obviously as you get closer and closer to production hardware - and typically, the final devkit that you get is production hardware, near as damn it finished - as you get closer and closer, you're using more and more like the final silicon, which will be more and more like the final clock speed.

So it only gets better from here on in - which is pretty astonishing, to think about the implications of that actually. But faster, more powerful - where you use that power is a different issue.

Was most of what we saw really just showing off the graphics capabilities - stretching the RSX graphics part rather than the Cell chip? The assumption is that Cell is there for complex physics and AI...

You're right; obviously Cell allows you to do complex collisions, physics, dynamics, simulations, all of those things. Though, the Getaway demo was a good example of how you can have a living city brought to life as a result. Although it was pretty graphics, most of that power was actually Cell-based.

The Doc Ock head - the Alfred Molina head - is actually more of a Cell demo than it is a graphics demo, because we're calculating hugely complicated light sources in real-time on the Cell, even to the point where we calculate the angle at which light enters the skin, the way that the light is then coloured by your blood, and the way that it is then reflected back out. It's something called transmission. Skin is hugely complicated - if I put my finger over a light, for example, you can see that the light is coming through my skin. We were simulating that - emulating, simulating, kind of a fine line - we were simulating that on the Doc Ock head demo.

So that's really pushing the Cell rather than the graphics chipset?

Yeah. Those are really hardcore maths problems which the Cell is really good at solving.

It's not just the RSX that drives the graphical quality, then - the Cell can also really be used to improve the graphics.

Well, I'll give you a couple of other examples. The terrain rendering demo that was done by STI, which is the people who developed the Cell, doesn't use the graphics chip at all. That 3D landscape was generated in real-time from two input data sources and a software renderer running on the Cell created the final image. All that it does is output as a bitmap straight to the video hardware - it doesn't even create a single polygon, there's no concept of a polygon in that demo.

How long did the developers of the various launch demos have their hands on the PS3 hardware for?

It varies from two to probably five months. We've had Cell for a bit longer than we've had the graphics chip - at least, a working graphics chip. We've had our devkits for just over five months now.

Something the PS2 was widely criticised for - and which Microsoft in particular has played up very much - is being extremely hard to develop for. How does PS3 compare in that respect?

It always made me chuckle, that comment from Microsoft, because yeah, it's true, but it didn't stop us having thousands of games and 80 per cent market share. Having said that, there is an element of truth to it - PlayStation 2's architecture was more challenging for your average developer to get their heads around. Some were capable of getting their heads around it, some weren't.

PlayStation 3, I think, is going to be cheaper to develop for than the corresponding period of PS2 development. I know that's a fairly contentious statement to make, but there's a very good reason for that. When we announced the collaboration with NVIDIA, we just talked about them making a chip - actually, they don't make anything, they're a designer, and the RSX contains an NVIDIA-designed part, which gives us fantastic GPU capabilities. But what it also gives us, and this is actually the most important bit of it, is all the toolchain and CG pipeline that comes with it, which is a very well understood development pipeline in the PC community - and, yes, in the Xbox community, frankly.

So all of that pipeline of tools and technology and plug-ins comes straight across to PlayStation 3. Plus, on the Cell side of things, IBM brings a lot of expertise and know-how to the table. Also, as you know, the PS2's EE had two microprogrammable devices, VU0 and VU1 - which were incredibly fast, incredibly powerful chips that were very difficult to program for because of their very specialist nature and the programming skills required.

Within PlayStation 3, the Cell chip, although it has a number of components inside it, they're all general-purpose CPUs. They can be programmed at a much much higher level.

So we're going to see people writing for those in C, rather than having to mess around with VU code?

Absolutely. Messing around with VU code... Yeah, it's true. It's not for the faint-hearted, for sure.

In terms of your devkits - obviously some people have them already, so what's the schedule going forward for delivering them to developers?

Well, clearly Monday and Tuesday have been our big coming-out parties. We're now public, so we can now be a lot more open with all of our partners about what we're doing. You'll see a lot more devkits rolling out - but exact schedules, who they're going to and what they do is not something I can discuss here.

You're going to start rolling them out more rapidly now, though?

Yeah, for sure. We've been making them for some time, but obviously they're not in abundant supply at the moment.

In terms of the PS3 console itself... Why does it have three network ports on the back?

Because it can be a hub, rather than just being a terminal at the end of a network. Also, we want to be able to have a Gigabit port for an IP camera. So one of the ports is an in, and two of them are through. It can be a server as well as a terminal.

You showed demonstrations of the console running multiple applications across the two HDMI outputs - is that something which is actually built into the system's operating systems, or do games have to support it specifically?

Depending on the features that you exploit, some of it's handled by the OS, some of it will be handled by the applications. I should also explain that although yes, there are two HDMI outputs, you don't have to have only high-def devices attached to PlayStation 3 - there's also a standard PlayStation AV Multi-Out connector. So one of them could be an HD output, and one of them could be an AV Multi going to the TV.

Taking the demonstration of the video chat windows in one screen while a game was being played in another - is that something we can expect as a standard OS feature, independent of the game?

The Cell can run multiple operating systems, so yes, you could do that. Now, we don't have the application up and running yet, and the resource management isn't quite final - but the purpose of that presentation was to show what is possible. Exactly how that gets unlocked is still being worked on.

Online is one area where, without a doubt, Microsoft did get it rather more right than Sony last generation - Xbox Live being a much more comprehensive worldwide service than what Sony rolled out...

But more people play online games on a PlayStation 2 than on any other game console.

Right, but then a lot more people own PlayStation 2s than any other game console.

Yeah, but it is something that is worth pointing out - although, personally I have a great deal of respect for what Microsoft has done with Live, and I think they've got a lot of it right.

Can we expect to see Sony really working to catch up in that department on PS3?

I think that philosophically, PlayStation 2's online offering is an add-on to the hardware and software and operating system. In PlayStation 3, online is part of the DNA of the machine - in fact, the Cell processor itself is designed from the ground up to be connected to a broadband network.

So from switch on, day one of the machine, network functionality will pervade every aspect of the machine. We talked a little bit about that at the conference, but there's a lot more detail to go into about some of the really cool things - like, if your PS3 is switched on at home, it can be a media server to your PSP on the other side of the planet. Now that is incredibly cool. I could sit here in LA and navigate the data which is stored on my PS3, and download music and other data off my PS3, onto my PSP.

Phil Harrison, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.