Time was, only the biggest products – cars, airplanes, combines, supercomputers – took five years to design and build. With the introduction of Sony Computer Entertainment Corp.’s PlayStation 3 last November, however, there’s a newer, smaller entrant to that list: the video game console.
The PlayStation 3 entered the rarified realm of such hugely complex products for a single reason – the company had a high-tech vision unlike any in the short history of video games. In the development of the PS3, Sony refused to employ an off-the-shelf processor, called for extraordinary clock speeds, boosted image resolution by an order of magnitude, and teamed with some of the electronics’ industry’s biggest names to pull it all together. Then, when the power budget grew and the console’s electronics began heating up like an Arizona sidewalk in July, Sony drew on the expertise of dozens of its own industrial designers to cool it.
“This is definitely the most complicated project I’ve ever been involved with,” says Dominic Mallinson, vice president of research and development of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. “It was a huge project, with an enormous number of people involved.”
Indeed, Sony teamed with IBM and Toshiba on the development of the 3.2-GHz Cell processor, as well as with Nvidia Corp. on the RSX graphics processor and Rambus on its XDR memory and FlexI/O processor bus interface to develop the compute power it sought. Then, its software teams wrote middleware to set the stage for the PS3 games, while its hardware teams worked on a high-definition Blu-ray Disc drive, a Gigabit Ethernet physical layer, and a Bluetooth wireless controller.
“We’re entering a whole new realm of gaming here,” says Eric Pratt, senior director for iSuppli, a market analysis firm that tore down and evaluated the PS3. “Just a few years ago, no one would have thought this was possible.”
High Tech, High Cost
Indeed, the company’s approach was so high-tech that the PS3’s production costs reportedly are exceeding its sale price. iSuppli estimates that the 60-Gbyte version of PS3 costs approximately $840 to make, while selling for just $599.
“It’s an impressive piece of machinery, which is why we think the initial selling price is less than the production cost,” Pratt says.
Still, Sony is showing no concern over the cost issue, saying that “efficiencies will be realized” over the life cycle of the product, causing costs to eventually drop. Moreover, Sony engineers say, any attempt to lower the cost beneath its current levels would only have caused them to miss the technical targets set by Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Ken Kutaragi.
“He had a vision of a lot of computer power that could be chained together, even between systems over the network,” says Richard Marks, manager of special projects for Sony Computer Entertainment. “He didn’t want the game creators to be limited in any way. Any vision they could come up with, he wanted them to be able to realize it.”
Moreover, Sony executives wanted users of the console to be plunged into a virtual world that was absolutely engaging and convincing.
“It came down to a compelling experience for the user,” Mallinson adds. “And to make that happen, you have to make them suspend their disbelief for what they’re doing.”
To enable that, however, Sony had to make a tough decision: Bump the technology up to the HDTV level, or continue with its standard-definition approach. Ultimately, engineers say, their decision became one of pragmatism.
“In 2001, we knew that high-definition would come on rapidly by the 2006 time frame,” Mallinson says. “And indeed it has. Everyone is buying high-definition sets right now.”
With higher resolution, however, came a dilemma – a high-definition display typically has approximately 12 times as many pixels as standard definition. Engineers recognized that the higher number of pixels meant they’d need more computing power. Moreover, the company’s plan to use those pixels involved, not just higher resolution, but better simulation, as well. Software engineers laid plans for more advanced physics in the gaming software. With improved physics, even the simplest on-screen actions – for example, the falling of raindrops or breaking of glass – would look more realistic, and would be more “compute-intensive.”
“In the old game, when you’d destroy something, we’d use a pre-calculated method to show how things would fall down and bounce on the ground,” Mallinson says. “But we knew we couldn’t get away with that anymore. We knew we’d have to more accurately simulate how those items interacted and bounced.”
PS3 Full Disassembly Videos
Beyond the PlayStation 2
All of those features, however, constituted a need for greater computing power. All engineers agreed that a new microprocessor with significant processing power would need to serve as the heart of the new PS3.
“When we finished the PlayStation 2, we realized that we couldn’t go any further with a standard core,” Mallinson says. “The ones off the shelf weren’t quite good enough for what we needed.”
Sony met that need by teaming with Toshiba and IBM Systems Technology Group at an IBM facility in Austin, TX. There, engineers built atop an IBM 64-bit PowerPC core, creating a multiprocessor CPU by augmenting the original device with seven specialized co-processors based on a single-instruction multiple-data (SIMD) architecture. Known as the Cell Broadband Engine, the seven-core device is targeted at data-intensive processing applications, like those found in cryptography, high-end science and gaming.
Sony engineers say the SIMD architecture was ideal for the PlayStation 3 because it’s good at processing graphics in three-dimensional space, particularly when one 3-D position is added to another, as often happens with the movement of characters in video games.
“A lot of modern processors have SIMD architectures today, but ours is designed to be the best at that,” Marks says. “We also created special math libraries built atop SIMD to leverage that capability.”
To complement the speed of the 3.2-GHz Cell processor, Sony engineers also worked with Nvidia Corp. on the development of its RSX graphics chip and with Rambus, Inc. on the design of XDR memory and FlexI/O processor bus interface. The Nvidia graphics chip, the product of 1,500 person-years of cooperative labor between Nvidia and Sony, incorporates 300 million transistors and reportedly provides two teraflops of floating point horsepower, which keeps the PS3 from choking on its high pixel demands, as well as on the needs of the high-power physics simulations. The work with Rambus, meanwhile, endows the machine with two big bandwidth channels, providing an extraordinary aggregate bandwidth of 65 Gbytes/sec to the PS3.
Sony engineers acknowledge that the decision to endow the PS3 with such exceptional speed may seem like overkill now, but they’re confident that it’s perfectly appropriate for the future of the system.
“When you’re designing a system, and you come up with these outrageous targets, you have to realize that when you give it a few years, it won’t be outrageous anymore,” Mallinson says.
Removing the Heat
Still, the addition of such high-powered computing systems, along with a big hard drive and high-definition Blu-ray Disc system, posed a problem for Sony designers. All of the chips, packed tightly together on a 12” X 7” printed circuit board inside the console, used about 360W of power, which, in turn, emitted heat.
Industry analysts say that no previous game console came close to the PS3 in terms of power usage and heat dissipation. A tear-down analysis done by iSuppli concludes that Microsoft’s Xbox 360, for example, draws about 200W of peak power, or slightly more than half that of the PS3.
To deal with the heat issue, Sony called on its industrial design team in Tokyo. Designers there ran a multitude of software air flow simulations to determine the best shape of the console to optimize air flow and venting, and therefore pull heat out of the box. Ultimately, designers decided to install the biggest fan they could fit into the 13” X 11” X 4” console. Then they optimized placement of various chips on the printed circuit board to ensure the presence of nearby air flow paths to draw heat off the devices. Finally, they employed control electronics to minimize power draw and determine the power level needed by the fan.
Analysts from iSuppli who tore down the console in November say they were shocked to see extensive cooling measures implemented by Sony engineers. “It’s obvious that there was a lot of sensitivity to thermal management,” says Pratt of iSuppli. “It looks like what we’d normally see in the big servers we tear down.”
“One of the biggest engineering feats on the PS3 is the box,” Marks adds. “It may not be the sexiest feature as far as consumers are concerned, but there’s some amazing engineering there.”
Industry analysts say they can’t predict whether Sony’s calculated high-tech risk will appeal to gamers five years from now. In a recently-published study, however, Forrester Research Inc. Analyst Paul Jackson acknowledged that the PS3 was “almost absurdly powerful,” but added that its success may hinge on other criteria. “Sony needs the PlayStation 3 launch to go smoothly,” he wrote. “All the units must work, the online service should be easy to set up, and the initial software titles must live up to the hype.”
If early reaction to the PS3 rollout is any guide, demand is still high for the Sony boxes. Shortly after the release, police in various locales around the country were forced to disperse rowdy consumers waiting to buy PS3 game consoles. Anxiety over the rollout reached such heights that a Wal-Mart in California had to shut down.
Sony executives are hoping that the early hype translates to long-term demand.
“Our goal was to put enough in it, so it will last 10 years and still give great experiences,” Marks says. “If we’ve done that – if we’ve met peoples’ expectations over the long term – then it will be successful.”
PS3 Specs (60 GB HDD Version)
Dimensions: ~13” X 4” X 11” CPU: STI Cell Broadband Engine GPU: Nvidia RSX Main memory: 256 MB Rambus VRAM Hard Disk: 60 GB Ethernet: 10BASE-T, 100BASE-T, 1000BASE-T Wireless Communications: IEEE 802.11 Disk drive: Blu-ray/DVD/CD