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Monday, January 10, 2005
Sony gives PSP its US debut

A day before the official opening of the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Sony unveiled the first playable versions of US PSP titles running on a retail version of the PSP.

Unlike previous events, all 17 of the software titles on display were running off of UMD discs on final, retail PSP hardware as opposed to early development kits. Interestingly enough the PSP's on-hand were all Japanese models, thus confirming earlier comments by Sony executives that PSP software would be region free, even if music and movie discs were not.

The presentation opened with Kaz Hirai, Sony Computer Entertainment America president and CEO, taking the stage to introduce the hardware and cover some key facts about the Japanese launch of the PSP.

According to Hirai, Sony shipped 200,000 PSP units for the December 12 launch and a total of 510,000 by the end of the year. A total of 18 titles are already available for purchase in Japan and more than 100 PSP games are currently in development worldwide.

"The initial launch in Japan bodes well for the future success of the other global territories," said Hirai. "We are well on our way to meeting the previously stated goal of shipping 3 million PSP units by the end of our fiscal year. For North America we will most likely release the PSP in late March of 2005."

Late March of 2005 was as specific as Sony would get regarding the US release date of the PSP and the official US pricing wasn?t mentioned. In fact the only pricing mentioned was the official Japanese price of 19,800 yen for the base unit, which is around 110.

It is possible that Sony is keeping the launch details under wraps for a later announcement, but it is also possible that the company is still behind on production numbers and it doesn't want to over commit -- only time will tell.

In addition to original titles -- Hirai made a point that Sony was going to focus on new titles and extensions of existing franchises as opposed to ports of existing PS2 games -- a big part of Sony's push with the PSP will be connectivity both with the PS2 and the PC.

The idea is not to supplant the PS2 controller with the PSP, rather Sony hopes game developers will plan titles with both systems in mind in order to allow for data transfer. The PC connection via USB will allow PSP owners to download photos, music and movie files to the PSP's Memory Stick Duo, as well as add-ons for PSP games. These can consist of extra levels, new characters or even fresh background music--whatever the developer fancies. While no specific announcement was made, this could also be a way of delivering demos.

"One of the key market drivers will be original intellectual property development with games specifically designed to take advantage of the way in which consumers experience portable entertainment," said Hirai. "Portable entertainment is primarily solitary by nature, but what fun would it be if you weren't able to connect with others?"

The PSP supports two wireless modes in order to deliver on its promise of multiplayer gaming. The first is an ad-hoc based network mode that supports up to 16 different PSPs. Not all games will support the maximum number of players.

The second wireless mode is the industry standard 802.11b. While there were some comments from the technocrats in the crowd that 802.11g would have been preferred, there is no real practical advantage to doing so. None of the games will saturate the 802.11b network and going with the slower standard is the cheaper option.

While most gamers are interested in the PSP because of the games, Sony itself sees the device as much more than a gaming machine as evidenced by the support for both still image (JPEG format), audio (UMD Audio, MP3 and ATRAC3plus formats) and video (UMD Video and MPEG4 formats) files.

The PSP's large, crisp screen is ideal for video playback and Sony is actively pursuing movie studios to release their titles on UMDs. No movies were confirmed, though Sony did have video demos from Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony BMG, Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox on hand. Our only concern about the screen at this time is durability. The PSP screen itself is easy to dirty and dead pixels were noticeable on a few of the demo units at the event.

Hirai also enlisted SCEA public relations representative Patrick Seybold to help demonstrate the MPEG4 support of the PSP. Seybold used a Sony Cybershot to take a short video of the presentation. The Memory Stick Duo was then removed from the camera, inserted into the PSP and played directly. The same was done for still photos.

"It's been referred to as an iPod killer," said Hirai when speaking of the PSP's A/V functionality.

Before demonstrating the music capabilities of the PSP, Hirai invited a special guest to join him on stage -- recording artist and host of MTV's ?Pimp My Ride?, Xzibit. After introducing himself to the crowd, Xzibit and Hirai gathered around a Sony Viao running the music transfer software. The PSP was connected via the USB port and recognized by the software. A simple click copied the song and Hirai and Xzibit then jammed to the PSP.

Having thoroughly demoed the hardware, Hirai played a video showing highlights of PSP gameplay before inviting the crowd to join in the fun. On cue a number of drawers hidden in the chairs popped open and inside each was a PSP complete with demo software. A number of models also started milling about, each with a PSP as well. Sadly the machines were very securely anchored to both the drawers and models to prevent any unplanned removal.

The games available for demo play were Ape Escape, Archer Maclean's Mercury, ATV Offroad Fury, Coded Arms, Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower, Dynasty Warriors, Hot Shots Golf, Metal Gear Acid, NBA 2005, Need for Speed Underground Rivals, NFL Street 2, Ridge Racer, Spider-Man 2, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, Twisted Metal: Head On, Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade and Wipeout Pure.

"PSP will elevate portable entertainment out of the handheld gaming ghetto and Sony is the only company that can do it," said Hirai. "Dare I say it, the baton has been passed."

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