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Sony Taps nVidia for 'Cell' Console Graphics

By Jay Lyman
Dec 8, 2004 7:36 AM PT

Sony and nVidia disclosed yesterday that they have been jointly developing graphics and computer entertainment technology intended for the next-generation "Cell" silicon, which will power the PlayStation 3 (PS3) and other Sony electronics.

Sony Taps nVidia for 'Cell' Console Graphics

The two companies announced little detail on the Cell chip but did indicate that nVidia's GeForce chip technology would play a significant role in the all-important graphics processing of the new console.

Last year nVidia lost its Microsoft Xbox 2 business to rival ATI. The one constant for both Sony's and Microsoft's consoles -- and rumored to be a part of Nintendo's next-gen console -- is IBM. Big Blue is producing the CPUs for PS3 (with help from Toshiba and Sony) and for Xbox 2 (with help from ATI).

"It may just be that IBM has a nice processor that's cost-effective," Mercury Research president Dean McCarron told TechNewsWorld, adding that IBM has the technology and manufacturing might to power the consoles.

NVidia Involvement

Sony and nVidia indicated this week they have been collaborating for two years on the graphics solution for Cell under a broad, multi-year agreement based on royalties.

The agreement, which encompasses future Sony digital consumer electronics products, is based on design of a custom graphics processing unit incorporating nVidia GeForce and Sony system technology, the companies said.

"The combination of the revolutionary Cell processor and nVidia's graphics technologies will enable the creation of breathtaking imagery that will surprise and captivate consumers," said nVidia President and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang in a statement.

Beyond Chips

Ken Kutaragi, Sony Computer Entertainment president and COO, indicated the technology will enable a "fused" experience of console and broadband PC technology.

He also said the collaboration with nVidia will produce technology to help game and media developers in their work.

"Our collaboration includes not only the chip development, but also a variety of graphics development tools and middleware -- essential for efficient content creation," Kutaragi said in a statement.

Parallel Processors

Gartner research Vice President Martin Reynolds told TechNewsWorld that he expects nVidia's processor will do much of the graphics computation, but will be among many other processors driving the next-generation of gaming.

"I expect a big architecture with lots of small processors designed for arithmetic," Reynolds said. "I expect a bunch of little, arithmetic chips that work in parallel."

Mercury's McCarron said console designers are focusing on multicore, multi-threading technology that can allow multiple programs to run efficiently at the same time. He noted that many games can run on a parallel platform.

Custom Consoles

Analysts downplayed the nVidia announcement, indicating it meant that Sony basically announced a graphics chip for Cell. They agreed, however, that despite similar development efforts for different consoles, the gaming hardware varies greatly on the different platforms.

"Everybody's designing a gaming system based on what they think should be done," McCarron told TechNewsWorld. "Basically, everything is custom." He said that while processors have a shorter lifespan in PCs, the gaming console silicon must be designed to last longer.

"[Manufacturers] are more likely to risk a bigger chip early on," McCarron said. "They're more aggressive because [the processor] lives so long. It definitely gets treated a little bit differently [for consoles]. By the same token, you've got a very discerning audience, so you see a lot more effort going into system and game development."

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