Sony's PS4 vision raises privacy, DRM questions

Sony’s New York PlayStation 4 event simultaneously disappointed and intrigued. Many were hoping for more details on the next-gen machine, or at least a glimpse of it – what the world got instead was too vague for some and the footage from upcoming games did not entirely placate that. What there is to work with, though, is interesting – Sony’s vision appears to be playing the long game, in building a completely connected ecosystem.

Under the bonnet, the PS4 will be running a setup not dissimilar to a speedy PC. AMD got the contract for the CPU and GPU, with an 8core 64-bit x86 Jaguar as the CPU, and a Radeon GPU with 18 compute units which Sony claims can handle an enormous 1.84TFLOPS in processing power. Additionally it will ship with 8GB of GGDR5 RAM which should manage 176GB/sec of bandwidth, as well as USB 3.0, Bluetooth 2.1, optical out, and a legacy analogue AV, Engadget reports. It is not known how much storage the devices will ship with. 

Aside from the great spec, what is particularly interesting is the direction in which Sony is keen to take gaming. Sony revealed enough,but not too much, to – we suspect – twist Microsoft’s arm into an announcement in the near future.

Much bluster was made of the new DualShock controller’s track pad, and its share button, a feature that lets users record video and upload it in real time for friends to see on social networks. Sony must be feeling confident. Even years-old games like past Battlefields and earlier Call of Duty titles still drop connections frequently on the Playstation 3. This cannot just be a software problem.

It is true that networking is improving, but Sony’s vision for an always on connected device may not be immediate or noticeable for large sections of gamers at launch. To expect connections to carry the weight of 20 gig downloads while playing the game is asking a lot, especially in heavy-use households. Imagine multiple PS4s bringing this burden on a connection in a single household – while others put further demands on the network: seeding and uploading torrents, streaming HD content on Netflix, another stream on a tablet and the bandwidth begins to get pretty crowded. Introduce the fair-use bandwidth capping of some of the bigger ISPs in, and to expect a seamless experience by Christmas 2013 is a lofty goal. Sony was confident enough to make a two hour song and dance about the upcoming console – so it must know something we don’t.

Much as cloud computing has been foisted upon the consumer, a connected PS4 ecosystem will, in the words of a Sony representative in this illuminating video on IGN, follow you as you go. Games will find new ways to connect with you outside of the living room,and this is being marketed to the public as something it wants. That may be the case, but we will have to wait and see the real world reaction. There is something slightly eerie about an always-on gaming network that you carry with you at all times, reminscent of the least season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

It looks like anonymity will be going out the window, too. In one obvious way, integration with Facebook (already possible on the PS3) and the Sony Entertainment Network appears more pervasive, from the snippets we have seen. Sony wants the real you playing on its servers. With the consumer pushback against Mark Zuckerberg’s data harvesting operation, it will be interesting to see the reaction. What benefits does this have for Sony? Aside from keeping its customers as a captive audience across multiple devices, if Sony is as successful as it wants to be with broadening out the scope of its network, opportunities for gathering personal data and consumption habits will be easier than ever for the company to pick at. Unlike Facebook, users would be paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege.

The Playstation 4 raises more questions about Digital Rights Management. That is, piracy and privacy. Microsoft last year was revealed to have filed a patent on image recognition technologies that could place basic demographics of the viewer or viewers, opening up worrying possibilities for DRM that the company fully acknowledged in its patent.

The above IGN video makes reference to that, too – that your PS4 would know more about your living room than perhaps you’d be comfortable with. A developer says this will be useful in marketing items that are more relevant to a user’s interests, based on past behaviour. But what creepy domino effect could this ultimately set into action? Eli Pariser’s argument of an online “filter bubble” comes to mind. That the more cultivated and personalised our experiences are, while giving the illusion of being open, make us more closed off than ever before. Sony’s vision so far is intriguing. For now, it is difficult to do much more than wait for more information, not to mention Microsoft’s riposte.