Thursday, November 30, 2006

Playstation 3, Cognitive Limits, and the Future

Many internet sources recently have been talking, analyzing, betting, and running social commentary on the arrival of the Sony Play Station 3. It is certainly one impressive machine, showcasing the latest, even controversial developments in consumer electronics (Blu-ray 50 gigabyte UHD optical disk drive) along with the newer-philosophy of multi-cored CPU chip fabrication. Here is a nice summary of the controlling processor from Wikipedia:

The PS3's 3.2 GHz Cell processor, developed jointly by Sony, Toshiba and IBM ("STI"), is an implementation to dynamically assign physical processor cores to do different types of work independently. It has a PowerPC-based "Power Processing Element" (PPE) and six accessible 3.2 GHz Synergistic Processing Elements (SPEs), a seventh runs in a special mode and is dedicated to OS security, and an eighth disabled to improve production yields. “[1]

As is often the case, hardware design leads software design, and the Nov 20th issue of Newsweek notes that programmers will not come fully to grips with the PS3's abilities until midpoint in the five year life-cycle of the machine. Multi-cored programming is complicated business anyway, since even standardized operating systems which allow such hardware are a fairly new development, much less compiler tools which run on those operating systems.

Apart from the well-earned “gee whiz” advances featured on such machines, further advances in game machines will begin to butt-up against certain biological features of the human organism.

First, as an example, consider the controller. The PS3 SIX AXIS is a controller named for its ability to detect motion in the full six degrees, which is to say (as a matter of mechanical movement in three dimensions) that it allows the full range of options: (1) Turning left and right (yawing); (2) Moving left and right (swaying); (3) Tilting side to side (rolling); (4) Moving up and down (heaving); (5) Moving forward and backward (surging); and, (6) Tilting up and down (pitching). There is still the symmetrically placed 16 buttons. Yet there are limits of the human hand, not the least of which is the presence of only 10 fingers, so the addition of extra buttons will sooner or later (if not even now with 16) be outside the range of depressability. Even when every finger is perfectly poised on a button, a button can only be depressed so quickly. Although a typical neuron can transmit 1,000 pulses per second, gross motor movement and control operates far slower than this. Even if your nervous system is sending multi1-Khz spikes down your legs, you’ll never see 1,000 leg movements per second on Dance Dance Revolution Extreme.

Second, multi-channel sound effects give the full depth of sounds in games. Even recent studies of ipods note that “a whopping four out of every five listeners set their volume higher than the 85 dBA”[2] which is the limit for safe, non-damaging hearing. So the thrill of thunder and explosions will only proceed so far until there is biological loss. But one can easily see that immature minds might calculate that the thrill of today is worth the sacrifice of some long term hearing later, “when I’m really old and going to be hard of hearing anyway,” as the rationalization might go.

Third, the human visual cortex is capable of distinguishing around 25-30 strobe events (i.e. ‘flashes’) per second, thus a 25-30 Hertz light signal. Anything that flashes at a faster rate appears as an uninterrupted light source. Also, visual processing also has something akin to a ‘short term’ perceptual memory, and only so many light objects can be tracked simultaneously (as old-school Robotron: 2084 players found much to their performance chagrin in 1982). Sure, ever faster processors can fill ever bigger screen real-estate, but you’ll never see most of it.

Fourth, currently you still just have to sit there and move controllers. Even Wii, with its fancy new controller, is still but a manual controller. I predict PS7 will have something akin to what current speech-to-text system have: a training regimen. What might happen, is that the V4 (and associated) visual centers in the back of the brain will be decoded, and one can then imagine mental images which will have direct control over game interaction. We might extend this further. There is some reason to think that the process could move the other way also, where passive electromagnetic feilds could be projected onto the brain to let you "see" (in the sense of imagine) game imagery. It would be full immersion, but w/o all that unweildy hardware hanging off the head.


[1] “PS3" WikiPedia
[2] "Could an iPod Really Blow Out Your Ears?" - Popular Mechanics


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