Exclusive: A Deeper Look at the PlayStation 5—Haptics, UI Facelift, and More | WIRED
Ever since the original PlayStation hit the market in 1994, Sony’s series of videogame consoles has stuck to the numbers. No “Super,” no “Max,” no “Code Red Xtreme”; just PlayStations 2, 3, and 4. With such unwavering consistency, the name of the next iteration has been a question only in the most technical sense—but Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan is still ready to answer it. The console, he tells me, will be called PlayStation 5. “It’s nice to be able to say it,” he says. “Like a giant burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”
So. There you go. PlayStation 5, holidays 2020.
Sony hasn’t said too much about the console since April, when WIRED broke the story about development efforts on what was then known only as the “next-gen console.” In fact, the company hasn’t said anything. Sony skipped games show E3 this year, a void during which Microsoft unveiled details about its own next-gen console, a successor to the Xbox One referred to only as Project Scarlett. Like the PS5, Scarlett will boast a CPU based on AMD’s Ryzen line and a GPU based on its Navi family; like the PS5, it will ditch the spinning hard drive for a solid-state drive. Now, though, in a conference room at Sony’s US headquarters, Ryan and system architect Mark Cerny are eager to share specifics.
Before they do, Cerny wants to clarify something. When we last discussed the forthcoming console, he spoke about its ability to support ray-tracing, a technique that can enable complex lighting and sound effects in 3D environments. Given the many questions he’s received since, he fears he may have been ambiguous about how the PS5 would accomplish this—and confirms that it’s not a software-level fix, which some had feared. “There is ray-tracing acceleration in the GPU hardware,” he says, “which I believe is the statement that people were looking for.” (A belief born out by my own Twitter mentions, which for a couple of weeks in April made a graphics-rendering technique seem like the only thing the internet had ever cared about.)
With that in hand, back to the PS5’s solid-state drive, which Cerny first extolled for the way it can turn loading time from a hassle to a blink. It’s not just the speed that makes the SSD formidablwe, he says, but the efficiency it offers. Think about the hard drive in a game console, spinning like a 5400-rpm vinyl record. For the console to read a piece of information off the drive, it first has to send out the disk head—like a turntable needle—to find it. Each “seek,” as it’s known, may only entail a scant handful of milliseconds, but seeks add up. To minimize them, developers will often duplicate certain game assets in order to form contiguous data blocks, which the drive can read faster. We’re talking common stuff here: lampposts, anonymous passersby.
But data adds up too. “If you look at a game like Marvel’s Spider-Man,” Cerny says, “there are some pieces of data duplicated 400 times on the hard drive.” The SSD sweeps away the need for all that duping—so not only is its raw read speed dramatically faster than a hard drive, but it saves crucial space. How developers will take advantage of that space will likely differ; some may opt to build a larger or more detailed game world, others may be content to shrink the size of the games or patches. Either way, physical games for the PS5 will use 100GB optical disks, inserted into an optical drive that doubles as a 4K Bluray player.
However, game installation (which is mandatory, given the speed difference between the SSD and the optical drive) will be a bit different than in the PS4. This time around, aided in part by the simplified game data possible with the SSD, Sony is changing its approach to storage, making for a more configurable installation—and removal—process. “Rather than treating games like a big block of data,” Cerny says, “we’re allowing finer-grained access to the data.” That could mean the ability to install just a game’s multiplayer campaign, leaving the single-player campaign for another time, or just installing the whole thing and then deleting the single-player campaign once you’ve finished it.
Regardless of what parts of a game you choose to install and play, you’ll be able to stay abreast of it via a completely revamped user interface. The PS4’s bare-bones home screen at times feels frozen in amber; you can see what your friends have recently done, or even what game title they might be playing at the moment, but without launching an individual title, there’s no way to tell what single-player missions you could do or what multiplayer matches you can join. The PS5 will change that. “Even though it will be fairly fast to boot games, we don’t want the player to have to boot the game, see what’s up, boot the game, see what’s up,” Cerny says. “Multiplayer game servers will provide the console with the set of joinable activities in real time. Single-player games will provide information like what missions you could do and what rewards you might receive for completing them—and all of those choices will be visible in the UI. As a player you just jump right into whatever you like.”
He says this like he says many other things: knowing he’ll fend off any follow-up question that ventures beyond what he wants to talk about. Like, What does the UI actually look like? Or, How big will the SSD be? Or even, Is that a microphone? Which is exactly what I ask when Cerny hands me a prototype of the next-generation controller, an unlabeled matte-black doohickey that looks an awful lot like the PS4’s DualShock 4. After all, there’s a little hole on it, and a recently published patent points to Sony developing a voice-driven AI assistant for the PlayStation. But all I get from Cerny is, “We’ll talk more about it another time.” (“We file patents on a regular basis,” a spokesperson tells me later, “and like many companies, some of those patents end up in our products, and some don’t.”)
The controller (which history suggests will one day be called the DualShock 5, though Cerny just says “it doesn’t have a name yet”) does have some features Cerny’s more interested in acknowledging. One is “adaptive triggers” that can offer varying levels of resistance to make shooting a bow and arrow feel like the real thing—the tension increasing as you pull the arrow back—or make a machine gun feel far different from a shotgun. It also boasts haptic feedback far more capable than the rumble motor console gamers are used to, with highly programmable voice-coil actuators located in the left and right grips of the controller.
Combined with an improved speaker on the controller, the haptics can enable some astonishing effects. First, I play through a series of short demos, courtesy of the same Japan Studio team that designed PlayStation VR’s Astro Bot Rescue Mission. In the most impressive, I ran a character through a platform level featuring a number of different surfaces, all of which gave distinct—and surprisingly immersive—tactile experiences. Sand felt slow and sloggy; mud felt slow and soggy. On ice, a high-frequency response made the thumbsticks really feel like my character was gliding. Jumping into a pool, I got a sense of the resistance of the water; on a wooden bridge, a bouncy sensation.
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