PlayStation Vita TV Announced in Japan!

Today at Sony’s pre-TGS press conference in Tokyo, Sony Computer Entertainment head Andrew House took the stage in the final minutes to announce “one more thing”. Sony had already announced a new, thinner, lighter version of the PlayStation Vita portable to go on sale in Japan  on October 10th this year. That model features improved battery life, an LCD screen (instead of the current OLED technology), 1GB of storage built in and a standard microUSB connector instead of the current proprietary one. They also announced a new 64GB Vita memory card which will be exciting to those of us with more Vita games than we can manage easily.

But Sony was not done announcing Vita hardware, and House shocked everyone by producing the PlayStation Vita TV. This new micro-console is essentially a small streaming box like a Roku or an AppleTV, except is features the Vita’s core chipset and can be used with a DualShock 3 controller to play Vita, PSP, and PS1 games on your TV.

It's tiny!

It’s tiny!

Scheduled to launch in Japan on November 14th this year, with the rest of the world to follow, it is priced at a mere 9,954 Yen. Based on the usual translation of price one would expect it to retail for $99 in the US. The device includes a memory card and game slot for existing Vita storage options, and HDMI port for connecting to HDTVs, an ethernet port for wired networking (in addition to the WiFi standards the Vita already supports) and a USB 2.0 port with opens the potential for using USB drives instead of expensive Vita Memory Sticks, though that functionality is not currently confirmed. The port could simply be for charging and pairing DualShock controllers, or using a PS Eye for video chat, etc. The full specs can be seen here.

Additionally, like a normal Vita, the Vita TV will support Remote Play with a PS4. This will in essence allow you to buy one PS4 that you can play in more than one room, anywhere you have a Vita TV set up. For the same price as a Roku or AppleTV, (or an Ouya) PlayStation Vita TV provides a pretty compelling value between support for all the biggest streaming services, including Hulu+ and Netflix, access to a great games library AND unprecedented inter-operability with the PS4.

With this move Sony have effectively kicked the stool out from under Ouya by providing better hardware, better games and (ironically) better support for the indie community of developer. They’ve also gotten the jump on Google, Apple and Amazon who have all been long rumored to be working on micro-consoles of their own. If this market segment proves to be lucrative they are well positioned to lead there, even as they have the high end console market well covered with the PS4. It is also a canny preparation for the roll-out of Gaikai next year which should happily stream games to the Vita TV just as easily as the PS4.

PlayStation 4 Promises (Near) Universal RemotePlay with Vita

PS4 Remote PlayAt last week’s shockingly in depth announcement event for the next generation PlayStation home console (dubbed PS4, naturally) Vita, perhaps rightly, took a back seat. While Sony Computer Entertainment head Andrew House dropped a rather cryptic hint about the Vita’s “full potential” being unlocked later this year, there was one very promising bit of news for Vita owners. While Gaikai’s Dave Perry was on stage detailing a number of the PS4′s new social and streaming features, Mark Cerny, PlayStation 4′s chief system architect, and the lead designer of PlayStation Studios Japan’s new character platformer Knack, came back on stage briefly to demonstrate the game being played on a Vita via Remote Play from a PS4.

Remote Play has been one of the most interesting, but frustratingly absent features for PlayStation platforms for a number of years. First introduced as a way to play PS3 games on a PSP, various technical issues have prevented it from gaining widespread adoption. Perhaps most infamously, Remote Play was at one time the only way to play controversial PS3 exclusive Lair from Factor 5 with an analog stick and not the Six Axis motion controls the game normally employed. Unfortunately, lacking a second analog stick for camera control resulted in most developers simply ignoring the Remote Play option.

While the PS Vita’s upgrade to dual analog controls, in addition to multiple programmable touch surfaces to emulate every possible controller input from a Dual Shock, another roadblock to adoption remained. Remote Play on the PS3 requires a game to devote a certain amount of memory and processing resources to create a compressed video stream of the live gameplay in real-time. Many games simply do not have any processor time to spare, nor the memory space needed. Those games that have been specifically patched to work with Remote Play on Vita are titles like Tokyo Jungle or the ICO/Shadow of the Colossus HD collection which do not push the PS3 hardware particularly hard.

Live demo of Remote Play from PS4 to Vita.

Live demo of Remote Play from PS4 to Vita.

While these “broken promises” may be seen as ample reason to be skeptical of Sony’s claims regarding Remote Play on the PS4, the situation now is very different. With Sony’s acquisition of cloud streaming company Gaikai, streaming gameplay has become a core focus of the PS4. New built in technologies have created the ability to livestream your games over Ustream, or immediately upload gameplay clips from your current session directly to Facebook. Central to these capabilities is the addition to a hardware video decode/encode chip. In layman’s terms this is a part of the PS4′s processor designed specifically to take each individual frame of gameplay being rendered and immediately creates an H.264 compressed video stream. This is the same kind of video used by video sites like YouTube, streaming services like Ustream and Twitch, and indeed the same kind of video used to enable Remote Play with a Vita.

Since creating the video stream is now effectively “free”, and in fact something the console is always doing in every game in order to save the last 15 minutes of game play in case you want to save or upload a clip, there is very little to keep Remote Play from being a near universal feature. Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony Worldwide Studios recently gave an interview in which he said not having Remote Play for every game day one would break his heart. Thanks to the Vita’s ample control options and the PS4′s additional video encoding hardware, the biggest challenge to universal availability of the feature camera-based motion gaming. Although the Vita does have two built in cameras that can be used for things like Augmented Reality games, but anything that requires a full body view for motion controls in a fitness, or dancing game (for example) cannot be mapped to a Vita.

For the rest of the PS4 lineup, however, we have every reason to believe Sony can follow through on this particular promise. The hardware based video encoding, improved wireless technology in the Vita, and of course the incredible response time of the OLED screen should all combine to minimize any potential network lag that could bog down Remote Play on the PSP.

A Guide to Firmware 2.0 on the PlayStation Vita

At 7pm PST Sony released the promised 2.0 update for the Vita’s firmware. Taking less than 5 minutes to download and install for most, the upgrade includes a bevy of new, and useful features. For the last hour I have been poking around in the new version of the OS and core apps. Here’s what I found:

New Email App!

One of the headline features for 2.0 was the inclusion of a brand new, native email client for the Vita. Upon launching for the first time you are greeted with a screen inviting you to enter in your information for a Gmail or Yahoo account, but you are also given the option to manually set up any POP3 or IMAP email service you may have. In the case of Gmail and Yahoo it’s as simple as entering your name, email address and password (though if you use 2 factor authentication of Gmail you may have to generate a password from Google’s site).

The email client is attractive and quick. It also supports multiple email accounts in case you’re like me and have a few active accounts to keep track of. Individual emails with HTML content may render a bit funky, and unfortunately it doesn’t appear to pull down any contact data from Google, at least, so you’ll have to manually rebuild your contact list. You can simply tap on any sender to quickly add them to you contacts. It does not appear to be possible to mark individuals as spam, or manage any Gmail labels, for that matter. But for reading, composing and replying it all works pretty well. You can even view, and then save image attachments, all without exiting your game, and it can be set to automatically check for new messages and provide in game notifications for new email.

New Content Management Options!

One of the big upgrades to the content manager on Vita is the ability to now transfer files over WiFi, instead of only being able to use the USB cable connected to your PC or PS3. Doing so requires registering the Vita as an authorized device. On PC you will need the latest version of Sony’s Content Management Assistant which now includes a WiFi option. The first time you select the wireless transfer option from inside the content manager you will be prompted to enter a numerical code. The code will pop up on your PC screen and you’ll have 300 seconds to punch it in on the Vita. After that, any time the PC is on and your Vita is connected to the same network you will be able to upload or download images, videos, music, or even back up and restore your Vita games and data.

The other big change is the addition of Cloud Saving for PlayStation Plus members. When you first boot up the app “Cloud Storage” will be one of the three main options for subscribers. Selecting it will allow you to upload some, or all of your Vita saves to the cloud. Like on PS3 you can store up to 1GB of save data online. For digital games, or any that save to the Vita’s memory card they will appear with a selectable check box. Some games (including Mortal Kombat, reportedly) store the save information of the game cart itself, so it must be inserted into the Vita in order to be uploaded to the cloud. Once a save is in the cloud you can safely delete the game’s bubble without risk of losing your progress. Later you can reinsert the game, or reinstall a digital game and simply run the Content Management app to pull your saves back down from the
cloud.

Other PlayStation Plus Features!

In addition to the cloud saves mentioned above, the 2.0 firmware also adds the automatic update feature members already enjoy on the PS3. In the Settings App, under PlayStation Network there is now an Automatic Update Settings section which allow you to enable, and select which things you want to be automatically updated. It is now possible to automatically download patches for games, pulled down new firmware, upload save data and sync trophy data automatically.

Tuesday, November 20th the PlayStation store will also be updated with a selection of 6 free games for PS Plus member in the US. The initial lineup will add Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Gravity Rush, Wipeout 2048, Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, Jet Set Radio and the PSP version of Final Fantasy Tactics, all at no extra charge to existing PS Plus members. The extension of the Instant Game Collection to the system, coupled with the $200 Black Friday bundles for Vita mean that there has never been a better time to buy one. Tell your friends!

PS Originals and PSP Improvements!

Tip screen added to the PSP and PSOne emulators.

First, there is now a very helpful prompt when you launch a PSP or PSOne game telling you how to access the option menu by touching and holding the screen. Beyond that there are numerous enhancements. You can now customize the screen size and shape of PS One games. You still get the standard options, but the new “Custom”‘ option lets you pinch to zoom, stretch or move the game’s output around the Vita screen. Great for overcoming game with overscan, or for stretching things just a little bit, without creating too much distortion.

PSOne games now also give you essentially absolute control over button mapping, including the ability to map buttons onto the front or back touch, and to either analog stick. Great for games that use shoulder buttons for camera control, and a big improvement over the way L2 and R2 had previously been mapped to the center of the back touch surface. PSP games also have the ability to map controls to the touch screen. Strangely  the option menu no longer pauses PSP games so they continue to run beneath the option overlay.

Browser Upgrades!

The Vita’s built in web browser has also seen a significant upgrade. Most importantly, it can now run at the same time as a game, without the need to use click a link in the Twitter app to open it. It is fully approved for multitasking. It is also faster and with better support for HTML5 rendering standards. Unfortunately, that does not include audio or video support so you can’t just load up Giant Bomb or YouTube and start watching videos. Hopefully that support is still coming. It would be nice if the browser would at least automatically launch the YouTube app like in Android and iOS. The Twitter app still just launches the web browser for YouTube links, which is not useful. They have added the ability to tweet a link quickly from within the browser at any time by pressing the “…” button in the lower right and selecting “tweet”.

Odds and Ends

Near has received a bit of a face-lift so that the UI is slightly less inscrutable. The Maps application now includes weather information for your travel planning needs. You now also have way more fine grain control over notifications including which apps you want notifications from, and if they are allowed to light up the PS button, play a sound, or appear on screen.

All in all it’s a pretty robust set of changes for the system, including a lot of very welcome features and enhancements. There are still a number of things that could stand to be improved, most notably the way the browser handles A/V content, but the Vita now sports an amazing array of functionality and a lot of conveniences. Let me know if you have any specific questions in the comments below!

SCEJ Press Conference Round Up | TGS 2012

Tonight Sony Japan held their pre-TGS conference ahead of the opening of the convention this week. Of note to Vita owners are the launch of PlayStation Mobile, Sony’s cross platform Android/Vita store front that will launch October 3rd in 9 countries, including the US, Japan and a number of European states.

SCEJ also announced the popular PlayStation Plus service will be expanding to Vita beginning in November this year. The price is still $49.99 a year, or $17.99 for 3 months and the Vita perks will not cost any extra for existing members. Those features include 1GB cloud storage for saves, automatic updates and trophy syncing and, of course, the instant game collection. No word on how many games that my be and what the distribution will be between native titles, PSP games and PS One classics, all of which can be compatible with the hardware.

Sony took the event as an opportunity to reiterate a number of known features, like PlayStation One classic support, Cross Controller play with a live Little Big Planet 2 demo and live streaming of video from the nico nico app and a new video, including introduction from Kenji Inafune of Soul Sacrifice. New, was an announced digital comic reader demonstrated with a couple Manga comics, and blue and red versions of the Vita for the Japanese market.

As for new games, a number were announced, including Valhalla Knights 3, Shenran Kaguru: Shinovi Versus (although it’s unclear how it may relsate to the 3DS game), and a port of the Wii game Muramasa: The Demon Blade, all three from Marvelous AQ and due by March 2013 in Japan.

Toukiden was announced with a CGI trailer of a female warrior slicing up giant ogre-like beasts. It is being developed by Omega Force, the team behind the Dynasty Warriors series. Both PSP and Vita versions are confirmed.

Gundam Breaker was also announced for the PS3 and Vita, but the trailer was apparently too hot for the internet and censored on the stream.

Finally, a video the the PSP/PS Vita cross-platform game God Eater 2 was also shown and demonstrated running on Vita hardware. It is schedule to launch on both platforms simultaneously in 2013 and support ad-hoc play between PSP and Vita versions of the game. Content is identical, and saves can even be shared between devices, but the Vita version features significantly upgraded graphics.

Where is the Final Fantasy 25th Anniversary Edition Vita?

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Final Fantasy franchise. Celebrations are already underway this weekend in Japan as publisher Square Enix marks the event with a number of events and announcements. Yesterday they unveiled a massive Final Fantasy collection that includes every single mainline game in the Final Fantasy series on disc for the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, PSP and PlayStation 3.

Final Fantasy IV for the PSP features upgraded sprites and backgrounds, new spell effects and includes the episodic sequel, “After Years”.

As cool as that is, it feels like a missed opportunity, for there is actually one system that can play nearly every one of those games right now: the PlayStation Vita. Thanks to the addition of PSOne Classic support this week and a recent port of the Final Fantasy III remake, the Vita can already play every single Final Fantasy from 1 through 9. In addition to that, Square-Enix has also committed to a Vita version of their HD update to Final Fantasy X. A similar update to Final Fantasy XII is also conceivable.

This state of affairs turns Vita into a veritable Final Fantasy Jukebox. Unfortunately for Vita owners in North America the playlist remains a work in progress. Final Fantasy IV (PSP) and Final Fantasy VII (PSOne) are the only two that can be bought and downloaded directly onto the Vita. If you have a PS3 you can also buy the PSOne versions of Final Fantasy Origins (includes I & II), Final Fantasy VI, VIII and IX and copy them to the Vita over USB. Final Fantasy V remains unsupported, though it works for European and Japanese Vita owners, and the new PSP version of Final Fantasy III has yet to be localized.

Final Fantasy III for PSP is based on the 3D remake for the Nintendo DS, later ported to iOS and Android.

If you have not bought any of these games yet, the entire collection (excepting the unreleased Final Fantasy III) will cost you $80 on PSN today. All together, those 8 games will take up about 5.8 GBs on you Vita memory card. For another $10 and 200 MBs you can add on Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lion, something I would highly recommend.

This unprecedented level of backwards compatibility would have made Vita a fantastic choice for a special 25th Anniversary Limited Edition of the hardware. Make it a new color with a custom graphic treatment designed by Amano and pack in an 8 GB card with PSN codes for all the Final Fantasy games and fans around the world would eat that up! This would be an amazing way to honor the series and spark interest in the Vita platform, priming the install base for the eventual release of Final Fantasy X HD.

Of course, even without a special edition of the hardware, the ability to have 3 full generations of Final Fantasy in your pocket, with no carts or discs to juggle and all on that gorgeous OLED screen is truly something special. Add to that the promise of Final Fantasy X and possibly more, it just gets better. What’s amazing is this isn’t even a new phenomenon for the Vita. Today you can get Metal Gear 1 & 2, Metal Gear Solid 1, 2 & 3 and Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker all on your Vita. This November you’ll be able to play all four Persona games on your Vita. Such a feat deserves to be celebrated.