While chilling in the hospital during a hurricane after having a baby, I was reading Ben Thompson’s free weekly Stratechery newsletter about Nvidia and their current position.
Moreover, Nvidia is, as with ray-tracing, backing up DLSS with dedicated hardware to make it much more performant. These new approaches, matched with dedicated cores on Nvidia’s GPUs, make Nvidia very well-placed for an entirely new paradigm in not just gaming but immersive 3D experiences generally (like a metaverse).Nvidia in the Valley by Ben Thompson
Editing in WordPress’ iOS app is atrocious (plus I was busy with a new human), so the draft sat on the server. Then this morning, I was watching MKBHD’s iPhone 14 Plus video and he mentioned a similar trait.
But what’s really happening now is companies are developing their own silicon with special sections of their system on a chip designed to accelerate certain functions that they think will be a priority for their users.
These observations on dedicated hardware in custom silicon reminded me of the PS5. Here’s what I wrote about Sony’s ninth generation console in 2020.
The through line for the whole talk was how customized the PS5 actually is. The SSD is custom. The CPU and GPU are custom. The I/O board is custom. Beyond parts you’d need to build a gaming device, Sony has developed and incorporated their own custom silicon to aid those cornerstone components. There is a custom flash controller for the SSD, which helps prioritize and free up lanes for information to go through. There is a custom “Kraken” decompressor. Kraken is a compression tool that is supposed to be popular amongst many game developers. This custom decompressor unpacks that format with the power of nine Zen 2 cores. These are not chips you can buy off the shelf and slap into a PC.
All of these custom components surround the cornerstone chips that make game consoles possible. Instead of forcing developers to conform to a custom standard, this hardware seems to alleviate hardware work loads and assist developers. It strikes me as the inverse of the PS3 and its Cell architecture. It took developers quite a bit of time to adapt to the Cell processor: It was notoriously tricky to work with. The PS5 is using a custom AMD Zen 2 processor, which seems to be an industry standard…
…I thought the most custom element was the 3D audio tech that Mark detailed. Sony wanted to offer great audio for all players, not just those with fancy sound systems or headphones. So they went ahead and built custom hardware to help create 3D audio from any set of speakers (eventually). Headphones are the gold standard due to one speaker per ear, but Mark even talked about generating 3D audio from TV speakers. With it included in every single PS5, that gives all players and all devs the opportunity to experience/use 3D audio. It reminds me of the leap from standard definition to HD, but for our ears.
Almost two years into the PS5’s lifecycle, we can see the payoffs of leaning into custom hardware alleviation. The raw loading speed of games, 3D audio, the DualSense haptics, all come together to enhance the game experience while providing developers with power. 3D audio itself is a stand out mechanic when implemented right.
[In Returnal] I heard wild alien creatures whipping around me in the level. I instinctively turned toward the sound and stopped immediately on the enemy.
This was more than standard surround sound pointing me in a direction. I locked-in on the enemy with my ears before I did with my eyes or gun. In a fight-or-flight scenario, my ears did their survival job.
Then I got thinking about PSVR2 again…
When you combine these [haptic feedback and adaptive trigger] elements with the PS5’s Tempest audio engine, PSVR 2 has incredible potential to really put users in a place.
PlayStation’s pursuit of immersion this generation is off to a stellar start and promises to be a transformative addition to gameplay. I can’t wait to feel, hear, and see more.
We are in an era where big tech companies understand both their needs and their consumers (be that developers or customers). These companies then leverage their R&D and pour immense resources into developing custom hardware to make the experience better.
It’s not just PlayStation. Look at Apple with the Mac’s leap to Apple Silicon. The performance smokes Intel and AMD. Nintendo uses a custom Nvidia chip in the Switch. There have been plenty of rumors that the next console from the Big N with implement Nvidia’s DLSS to achieve a 4K image. Microsoft brought back the proprietary memory card!
The tune all of these companies are marching to is custom hardware to alleviate and streamline processes. It doesn’t sound like the songs of the past, like the Cell processor or the Trash Can Mac Pro. Big Tech seems to have found a groove and isolated what their platforms need to flourish without being cornered for years because of one decision. The song of custom sounds good now, hopefully someday it goes out on a high note instead of a whimper.