Here Comes PlayStation 2: More Than Just a Superpowerful Game Console, Sony's New Black Beauty Aims to Turn the Company into an Internet Giant. the Making of a New Machine

Newsweek, March 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Here Comes PlayStation 2: More Than Just a Superpowerful Game Console, Sony's New Black Beauty Aims to Turn the Company into an Internet Giant. the Making of a New Machine


The quiet in Akihabara is deceptive. Tokyo's electronics quarter, famous for a cubist profusion of stores hawking every imaginable gadget with every imaginable gimmick, has no balloons, posters or fliers promoting what one industry analyst predicts will be "the most successful consumer product ever launched." The only signs of the impending arrival of the machine that may supercharge interactive entertainment, democratize e-commerce, explode the DVD market and make the Sony company a dominant force in the Internet age are ubiquitous hand-scrawled notices near checkout counters that read, when translated, not taking advanced orders.

On March 4, however, the PlayStation 2 will finally go on sale in Japan (Americans will have to wait until late summer), and Akihabara may not be so quiet. Note the fate of Sony's Web site when it began to accept predelivery purchases of the ominous black and blue, state-of-the-art graphics supercomputer. Within seconds, approximately 100,000 eager buyers converged on the site, plunging it into a dot-coma. On PS2 Day, some Akiha-bara emporiums will open early to accommodate the inevitable lines of rabid gizmo freaks. "Dozens of times a day, we get asked if one can buy PS2 here on March 4," complains a salesclerk at one gaming mecca. "My answer is always the same--we cannot guarantee you anything." But Sony is guaranteeing something: a million PS2s sold this weekend at 39,800 yen each ($370)--the first wave of what might be an installed base of 100 million, big enough to catapult a thriving game-console industry into another galaxy--where gaming meets e-commerce and everyone can hear you scream (in Dolbyized stereo).

Part of the PlayStation's mystique is that it's much more than a game machine. Out of the box, PS2 is geared to play movie DVDs--just as mainstream consumers are considering switching from clunky VCRs to the dramatically enhanced digital alternative. And, of course, the PlayStation 2 will also spin your audio CDs. But the most significant aspect of the PS2 might be its ability to hook into the Internet, making it a "Trojan horse" to bring online gaming, e-commerce, Web browsing, e-mail and downloading of music, software and video into the home. In 2001, Sony will sell a combination high-speed Internet connector and hard-disk drive that is geared solely for high-speed connections. Previous attempts to merge the Net with game consoles have flopped, but Sony thinks it can buck the trend. "You can communicate to a new cybercity," gushes Ken Kutaragi, the visionary behind the PlayStation. "This will be the ideal home server. Did you see the movie 'The Matrix'? Same interface. Same concept. Starting from next year, you can jack into 'The Matrix'!"

For now, though, the PS2 will be judged as a game machine. And don't dismiss that as kid stuff. Last year the industry in the United States alone raked in almost $7 billion, and analysts predict that in 2000 the revenue will surpass the ticket sales of movie houses. Something that raises the bar is big news indeed.

Does PS2 raise that bar? Just punch the power button on the unit, a sleek black and blue, 16-inch-tall mini-tower that could pass as Darth Vader's toaster. Insert a disc in the slide-out tray, and it's instantly clear that computer games are edging toward territory previously monopolized by movies. You see skies with multiple layers of moving clouds. Coats that behave like real cloth. Rustling grass. And here's not-so-good news: in this post-Columbine era, social critics now have to contend with muzzle flash from a pistol that illuminates the shooter's face, double-helix smoke trails from missiles and a gorgeously granulated blood splatter as you lop off the head of a bat-creature.

The secret is the Emotion Engine, a fast, high-powered chip set that is fine-tuned to generate polygons, the building blocks of 3-D graphics. While the original PlayStation could handle a mere 360,000 polygons per second, version 2 can spit out more than 20 million: it's a jump from "South Park" to "Toy Story. …

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