At 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.
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.