Back when coal mining was widespread across the UK, the canary played an important role as an early warning system. Being more sensitive to the gases building up in the tunnels, the death of one of these birds would act as an indication to those working below ground that the level of carbon monoxide had reached dangerous levels.
While perhaps not as extreme, the announcement that the release of a PlayStation 5 console is ‘a matter of if, not when’ should be taken as an early warning sign that we are about to see a significant shift in the technological layout of our living rooms. By throwing into doubt the neat seven-year progression between gaming consoles that we have come to accept, Sony is anticipating (and reacting to) a set of technology trends that are already starting to significantly alter our home entertainment experiences.
“The problem is [that] the seven-year upgrade lifecycle doesn’t work in the face of the two-year upgrade cycles for every other hardware platform. It’s so intrinsically built into how consoles get manufactured and made and the full business model that I’d be surprised to see another generation.”
– Emmett Shear, founder of Twitch
The problem that Microsoft, Sony and, to a lesser extent, Nintendo are facing is threefold: the line between PC and console games is becoming increasingly blurred, new means of gaming are being introduced to the market and the technology that we’re putting into our living rooms is undergoing an evolution. This means that the old ways of operating will inevitably have to change if these companies want to stay relevant in the current landscape.
New players storming the castle
As the hardware for PC gaming evolves far more rapidly than dedicated gaming platforms, this poses a significant threat to the mid-generation engines currently sitting in people’s homes, whose technology is quickly becoming dated.
“We see on other platforms, whether it be mobile or PC, that you get a continuous innovation that you rarely see on console. Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger.”
– Phil Spencer, head of Xbox at Microsoft
Valve currently finds itself with a curious advantage over its rivals; not only has it taken PC gaming onto the television screen via its Steam controller and Steam Link, it is also intrinsically interlinked with the HTC Vive – arguably the most impressive VR platform currently on the market. Already available to the mass market, the addition of this headset to the Valve ecosystem means that it can confidently boast the most flexible gaming experience on offer, at least for now.
The console strikes back
Sony has already taken steps to combat this with the PlayStation VR, which ships later this year. Crucially, it is supported by existing PS4 units – so there won’t be any extra cost beyond the headset, camera and other peripherals for current customers looking to benefit from this new way of gaming.
That said, the PS4’s spec won’t have the awesome firepower needed for big, complex VR gaming environments and running local multi-player virtual reality. The latter is particularly important considering that it’s increasingly an activity that the whole family can engage with: three out of four parents now play computer games with their children, according to a recent Viacom study. The games console is making a return from the teenager’s bedroom to the living room and local multiplayer is once more on the rise. In order to support multi-player VR scenarios that stack up to the HTC Vive, PlayStation’s hardware will need to evolve accordingly.
It is a well-known secret that PlayStation is working on a ‘4.5’ console, codenamed Neo, which is set to completely change the way it approaches its hardware upgrades. It will be an extension of the PS4 family rather than a next-generation machine, thus averting the backwards-compatibility issues that provoked fans’ ire in the past.
More importantly, PS4 Neo looks set to address some of the important shifts that are starting to take place elsewhere in the home entertainment world. 4K television – fast gaining traction as consumers elect to experience their favourite shows and films in a higher definition format – is slated to be included, while Sony has already released an external processor unit for use with its VR headset that includes 3D audio processing. It seems logical that this will make its way into the console itself when the PS4.5 launches, bringing it in line with the emerging shift towards 3D audio for cinematic experiences.
A tale of three canaries
The readjustment of Sony’s console plans should be taken an early indication that a multi-sensory home entertainment experience will become the norm, probably sooner than is perhaps anticipated. At the same time, such an approach recognises that all of this technology will not appear in everyone’s houses overnight. There will need to be a gradual introduction where both the old and new formats remain viable options, at least until the likes of 4K reach a point of market saturation.
While Sony’s plan to adapt its system to fit in with home technology trends seems fairly clear, its main rival is playing its cards close to its chest when it comes to promising future upgrades. In 2015 Phil Spencer, head of Xbox at Microsoft, told The Verge that he was ‘100 percent committed’ to another console at some point, but has since been reticent to elaborate further, with statements ambiguous to the point of cryptic on the future of the Xbox. About the only thing that we know for sure at this point is that Xbox is refusing to follow Sony’s lead on the VR front.
“We’re watching how VR evolves. We’re participating – we have Minecraft and other things that we’re working on in the VR space and with HoloLens as well. Specifically, on Xbox One we’re not really focused on bringing a device to that platform.”
– Phil Spencer, head of Xbox at Microsoft
Naturally, Microsoft will be looking at Sony’s new unit with interest; if it looks like the PS4.5 will be a success, it will surely reluctantly follow suit and release a similar model – thus well and truly burying the concept of ‘generational’ consoles.
Nintendo is also thinking along disruptive lines, promising that its upcoming Nintendo NX platform – to be released in March 2017 – will be ‘something unique and different’ to its Wii and Wii U machines. While few concrete details have been made publicly available as yet, another gaming manufacturer taking a unique approach to home entertainment would put further pressure on Microsoft to act sooner rather than later.
Keen not to alienate their current fan bases by bringing out a brand new machine that supersedes all that came before it, but mindful that they need to make use of the new technology being installed in the home to remain relevant, games console manufacturers are trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Sony’s shift in focus is a canary warning that there is a change in the air – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for consumers. Technological shifts towards 4K, VR and 3D audio are already gaining traction in the way we consume television and film content; unless the console manufacturers catch up with these trends soon, they are going to find themselves left behind and struggling to avoid obsolescence.