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Why I hate my PSP

by on Jul.26, 2006, under games industry, portables

UMDs

In my last post, I talked about technology’s promise. More specifically, how the PSP is proof in my hands of a very likely future. I shared a quick thought about the supposed “ubiquitous connector” – a theoretical device through which I can interact with my world. A system by which I freely overlay a “meta-world” atop the real one, either through interesting games and media, or via information. I’d love to talk more about what this fictional device could do, but I’m sure you can easily imagine your own specifics. Your ideas about it are just as valid is mine. Oh, and it will be a part of our future. I also held that the Sony PSP is a great little system, one that reminded me of my earliest encounter with technology as a whole. As a promise for my future, a digitally integrated world. Not a bad feat for a commercial product, and kudos to Sony for a nicely designed multimedia machine.

Note : One thing I didn’t mention, is that you could have taken my post, search/replace on “Sony” and “PSP” with the words “Nintendo” and “DS”, and it all still applies. I like both these systems for their respective innovations, and for what they bring to the world of gaming and mobile entertainment.

Politics and Proprietorship

It’s unfortunate that neither of these systems fulfill even my most conservative leaps of inductive speculation. Yet, they could have. Remember, I briefly mentioned politics and the Internet. I’m not well qualified to go in-depth about it, but there are obviously countless reasons for this situation. For simplicity again lets restrict this to social impacts. That is, the way that internetworked applications have the potential to adjust our very social realm. Email is the first “killer app” that comes to mind, turning traditional means of communicating on its ear.

So politics comes into play as a controlling measure, to protect ourselves and reliant entities from disaster in the face of new, sweeping technologies. Take the music industry as an example, and I’ll oversimplify even further. On one side is the business of music. Royalties and other income for the employees, from radio stations to merchants. On the other side, it’s about free speech and devices that are immune from inefficient (and grossly unfair) control mechanisms. Ideally, a free and democratic society would attempt to strike a balance between the sides, to the betterment of all. Magic happens, and we get “pay-for” mechanisms that seamlessly allow us to obtain the music we want, whenever we want. So politicking is the necessary evil by which we obtain such a lovely and peaceful outcome.

Supposedly.

Not so, in the case of Sony and their PSP. Not even close. To protect itself, the PSP system is a closed one. The minidisc format, that Sony pretty much invented, is not copyable. For example, I cannot buy a writer for these discs. I have to buy them, pre-written, directly from a Sony-approved vendor. The “Universal Media Disc” (UMD), is great. Small form-factor, reliable read stats, smooth ejection and insertion, all engineered very slickly and sweetly. Yet, UMDs suck. They suck because they are closed and unwritable. They suck because they are extremely expensive. They suck because they come from a tech company that is also a huge music company, selling them to you at grossly inflated prices. They suck because they inherit the sensibilities of a hardware company that wants not only to sell them, but control the mechanism by which information contained within them is PUBLISHED.

Their agenda was not to create a ubiquitous wireless media experience. They clearly set out to construct, publish and sell UMDs.

Please tell me we aren’t back to Gutenburg versus the Church? This type of measure is regressive and backward, and the realisation of a sick corporate fantasy. Lock down the thing, control the product from publisher to consumer, and punish anyone who tries to circumvent any of it. Yes, hack your PSP and go to jail. Its a meaningless threat since its happened and will continue to do so. But again, why even bother creating a system that does not meet the desires of its users?

Remember Aibo?

A Footnote in History

Happily, all of these ridiculous corporate tactics won’t work, which is why the PSP will be sadly nothing more than a historical footnote. I promise you, one day you will say : “Oh yeah, I remember THOSE!”

The next problem, and why I hate my PSP, is where Sony has stumbled again.

I paid $79.00AU for “Tomb Raider : Legend” on UMD. I went physically into a store, took the item off of a shelf, paid for it with a stack of paper-based currency, and took it home and unwrapped the layers of plastic off its cover. Tell me how this is the future of mobile entertainment in the Internet age? Why can I not use the device itself to securely purchase additional content?

Well, here’s a hint. They didn’t even try to do this. Using the builtin 802.11b security with WPA and TKIP would be YOUR responsibility if you transmitted your credit card number over the airwaves. Talk to me sometime about the headaches of wireless infrastructure security. 🙂

Esther Dyson, famous tech futurist and investor (whom, through chance and the magic of a mutual colleague, I’ve had the sincere pleasure of meeting some time ago), said of the future of big-media,

“Well they’re going to lose worse. All the gate keepers who were controlling access to things. Many distribution channels for content , which are dependent on putting content in inefficient containers, putting it somewhere where it sat on a shelves, only half of it was used. The other half had to be destroyed. So all these things that create inefficiencies and benefit from them are going to lose…”

Profit from inefficiency and die, that’s the message. Is this not the very definition of the UMD?

That ubiquitous wireless Internet dream, is exactly that. Politics (especially in North America) have slowed the wheels of progress in order to exact a measure of control on this promise. Its funny, I could have sworn Casey and I were discussing this… back in 1996. We should have bought stock in something, preferably a lobbying organization.

The Meat of the PSPArgh I can't see!

So if you’ve skimmed this terribly lengthy post, I hope you get to this part. If all that political or techie stuff is not relevant to you, then how about the games?

Well, to this, I can unashamedly admit that many of them are totally excellent – balancing gameplay with its natural form factor, designed perfectly for console-style interaction, and solid integration with the other features of the system (i.e. networked multiplay). Yet, if I were to complain about the third-person interaction of MANY of the titles (Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Acid, Grand Theft Auto, and so on) – the camera view absolutely sucks in all of them. In some cases, it is so frustrating to control as to make the games virtually unplayable. I’m not the first person to say this. And these games were the “big titles” that attracted me to the system in the first place. What a disappointment.

So. The Sony PSP, for what it is, is totally fantastic. The Sony PSP, for what it could have been, miserably fails. In fact, I’m somewhat despondent about the platform as a whole. It’s not going to last.

That promise of my ubiquitous connector? Sigh. Such long way to go.

Or maybe I’m just pissed off that my girlfriend kicks my ass at Lumines.

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Why I love my PSP

by on Jul.24, 2006, under geek culture, portables

Ma PSP
In the beginning, it was digital watches. I found them simply riveting. My father’s friend had one, and I’d climb up onto his lap and press the steel divets that activated the display. I’d stare at the “:” between the digits, transfixed as it blinked reliably back at me. This was my first breath of technology, or at least my very own concept of it. And it was good. It was so new!”Dad, why can’t I watch TV on it?” The room breaks into laughter. Dick Tracy grimaces; Douglas Adams snickers.

Growing up, the idea of new technology became somewhat of a faith itself, served by my imagination, and yielding an occasional, gratifying example of the truly new. There was less satisfaction in things I could easily conceive : bigger hard drives, faster processors, better graphics… those were merely products of my inductive instinct, realised time and again in my thoughts long before before they actually appeared. I don’t claim that’s anything special – anyone who’s professed intimacy with the faith shares this mindset. Those are the rules of the game.

Once I learned the fundamentals, digital technology was relegated in my mind to tooldom, a fascination recalibrated into a study of its promise. My imagination tended to span a vast problem space, the gaps hopefully filled in by the clockwork machinery of vapourous technological solutions. This was the fun stuff.

Gadgets rarely impress me, really. “Technological wonders”… rarely are. The love of gadgetry, though hardly a new affliction in the scope of human interest, actually draws my ire. I wonder if disciples of ancient inventors loved products like some of my past acquaintances, who’d adoringly recite a menu of their innards like baseball stats. I always felt that this was like loving a hammer or a screwdriver. Sure, I was smitten at one time, when I was six, but show me something that I didn’t think of, show me a lifestyle change, a problem solved…show me fulfillment. That’s excitement!

The Internet came along, turned into a shopping mall, and was promptly booted into a political sandtrap. Think about that, how political it became in its first decade of mainstream existence. Yet, there exists a huge gleaming promise there. Problem spaces filled, new ones created. I remember that promise, springing into life, as I ran up the stairs and into my university’s graduate comp sci lab, gaping open-mouthed at the world’s very first graphical internet browser. All of those thoughts and possibilities gushed into my brain in an instant…then disappointment as I watched the pace of progress deliberately stunted by the ponderous inefficiencies of well established non-digital industries, all scared, shaken, uncertain. It was a collision on all levels, inevitable, as our capability slowly matched imagination; as technology met lifestyle. To business, this was either promising or threatening, depending on its orientation.

So now, in my 34-year-old hands, I hold both a promise fulfilled and one newly born. A Sony PSP.

It’s well engineered and pretty stylish. A place to which I can retreat. Full of sound and colour and brainiac distraction, enough to ease the tedium of commuter strain. Though well beyond my old Gameboy (which never became anything more than a Tetris machine no matter how hard I tried), it represents the exact same essence.

If I really wanted to, I could ride the train with my old handheld LED Pacman, circa 1981. Yes, the PSP is exactly like these, simply mobile entertainment. But mobile entertainment on serious steroids.

Has it come a little late? Well, it has paced the advance of low-powered LCDs properly and appropriately. So logically, no, the device is right on time. Yet, it seems a happy evolution at best. In itself, it changes nothing. We all know what portable fun is already. We imagined it when we were kids. It is well and truly a mere gadget; an iPod with a bigger screen and a 802.11b transceiver. In the unending tide of techno playthings, it will be a historical footnote. An small inflection point, not a turning point.

Yet I, in spite of myself, love it.

Why? Because of nostalgia. It’s fulfillment of a promise made thirty years ago, while I nestled in the lap of a digital watch. Finally here.

It’s a brand new promise. To me, it shows me a ubiquitous connector. A piece of internetworked fun. Wireless, mobile, graphical, auditory. It may not be exactly so, but it represents the Internet in my hands, an exciting multiplayer game, a movie, my favourite song, a chat with my friends, a videocall with my mother, a meeting place, a map, a social gateway, and a million things that I can’t even imagine. Right now, it does only some of these things. But it, or something like it, most definitely will.

It’s a new verse in the vows of my faith, that yes there is indeed such thing as sooner or later when imagining technology. Even if it’s later, I’ll never doubt again.

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