PlayStation 4: A living room console built for a mobile era

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 21, 2013

From The News Desk

Sony talked a little bit about its PlayStation 4 videogame console last night. Well, its controller, anyway. And its “synergy” with other platforms, among a few other hours of buzzwords and technical demos of human heads. The console itself wasn’t shown, its price wasn’t announced, and the closest anyone got to a release date was “the end of this year.” It’s been a little over six years since the PlayStation 3’s release, and Sony says that it has been working on this console for four of those years, but you wouldn’t know it from last night’s event.

Everything Sony shared last night — which isn’t much, despite the long-winded event — points to a videogame console built in the mobile era. From streaming games, “instant-on” and resume capabilities that allow a gamer to start playing a game exactly where they left off after the device had been, and the integration with the PlayStation Vita portable console, it seems that Sony has identified what the mobile generation expects from its devices. (A cynic might point out that not announcing a price or release date and keeping the console itself off the stage is also increasingly becoming a part of mobile technology.)

The most interesting aspect of the mythical PlayStation 4 is its ability to stream games, combined with Sony’s claim that games can be played while they’re being downloaded. If Sony delivers on those features despite the horrible Internet infrastructure in the United States — a big “if” — it could make downloading games from the App Store, a relatively speedy task, feel old and slow.

PlayStation 4 games will also be coming to the PlayStation Vita, Sony's portable console. Though the device itself hasn't sold well -- Sony cut its estimates from 16 million to 12 million in October 2012 -- it does offer tight integration with the PlayStation platform Sony is trying to build. This might not be enough for the Vita to become a best-seller, but it might give people who already own one another reason to use it instead of their smartphone.

Speaking of smartphones: Sony also announced a second-screen PlayStation application for iOS and Android, following the trail blazed by Microsoft's SmartGlass app. Both companies seem to be learning how to embrace a world dominated by multiple devices, where a game might be paused or ignored to browse the Web, Tweet, or visit Facebook.

This is part of a larger push by Sony to make PlayStation more social. The company has redesigned the user interface of the Vita and the PlayStation 4 to incorporate more social features, making social a core part of the PlayStation experience instead of a side attraction.

Developing a more social platform isn’t without its risks, and Sony may find itself in the wrong with its decision to push users to go by their real names instead of an anonymized "handle." The Web doesn’t take fondly to companies requiring users to supply their real names (skuffle over Google’s push to do the same in Google+ and YouTube, anyone?) and gamers might be particularly derisive of the decision, if only because it’s harder to scream profanities at fellow gamers without fear of retribution if it’s their real name up there.

Other features, like faster hardware that allows instant-on capabilities (no more waiting for the console to turn on!) and more powerful graphics, are standard for new consoles. We’ll likely see similar improvements to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 when that gets announced.

Still, these improvements could allow Sony to better compete in a world where people are used to hitting an “unlock” button, sliding their finger, and having instant access to anything that is or could be on their device. The PlayStation 3 doesn’t offer anything close to this experience. After the console is turned on there’s a seemingly never-ending series of loading screens, downloads waiting to be installed, or general cludginess in the user interface. It’s enough to make someone wonder if they really feel like playing a game or if it might be better to go outside, call their parents, or do almost anything else instead.

Sony promised to change that last night. Everything was instant, from the ability to play PlayStation 4 games on the Vita to streaming games or playing games while they download and the console itself.

Well, everything besides the console itself, its release date, or its price. Those still need to wait.

[Image Source: The Techblock]