The debut of the PlayStation 4 in New York City Wednesday (Feb. 20) was as remarkable for what it showed as for what it didn't show: Sony unveiled a raft of beautiful, incredibly realistic new games, but not the console itself. The device, perhaps in a straight-from-the-lab rough appearance, was somewhere offstage, driving the giant projectors that broadcast previews of upcoming games around the Hammerstein Ballroom.
Out-of-site-yet-everywhere seems to be the overall metaphor of the PlayStation 4 (PS4), as Sony described it. The PS4 (which Sony plans to sell by year's end) is not so much a machine as a network — with games delivered from the cloud, games that can follow you as you move from the PS4 to a mobile device, and the ability to post video clips of your adventures or even broadcast entire games online.
"We're making it so your friends can look over your shoulder virtually and interact with you as you play," said David Perry, co-founder of Gaikai, a company that Sony bought to build its cloud-gaming network.
But not only friends will be watching. Sony will. "The PlayStation network will get to know you by understanding your personal preferences and the preferences of your community and turn this knowledge into useful information that will enhance your gameplay," Perry said.
Every important technology has good and bad uses. Some of the upcoming games that Sony showcased for the PS4 explore, perhaps unwittingly, the darker side of omnipresent, omniscient networks similar to what Sony is building.
Suckerpunch's new game "inFAMOUS: Second Son" explores the surveillance state. "Right now, there are 4.2 million security cameras distributed all around Great Britain. That's one camera for every 14 citizens," said game director Nate Fox, in a dramatic introduction to the game. "It is hard to put your finger on what that sense of security is worth, but it is easy to say what it costs — our freedom."
Like Great Britain, the PS4 will also have a vast network of cameras — not one for every 14 citizens, but one for every console owner. At the presentation, Marc Cerny, head of the PlayStation hardware platform, showed a photo of a depth-sensing stereo camera for the PS4, designed to track the new Dualshock controller as it moves.
The danger in "Second Son" is that some individuals have developed super-human powers (a la "Heroes") that make them living weapons. They carry no traditional weapons and show no physical signs of danger — rendering all the modern surveillance tech impotent.
But what if new security technology could go beyond the physical? What if it could read people's intentions and predict their next moves?
What if it were like the PS4?
Sony believes that PlayStation owners simply give off so much data as they interact intensively with the console, other devices and the network that it can know what its users intend to do.
"People haven't' changed, but now everybody's broadcasting. And once you've seen it, all of it, how do you look away?"
That's not a quote from a Sony or game-company executive. It's from the lead character in the upcoming Ubisoft game "Watch Dogs." It follows a vigilante character with access to all that information. As he walks through Chicago, message windows pop up, showing details about the people he passes. Marcus Rhodes, a 43-year-old Iraq War veteran, is unemployed. Sandy Higgins, a grade-school teacher, recently won a child-custody battle and has a 30 percent chance of being a crime victim. [See also: Is Your Cellphone Under Surveillance? ]
In the clip, the vigilante uses the knowledge to find a woman in danger and to track her attacker in a chase through the city. But as the police then pursue him, the game shows how much data the protagonist himself is giving off.
It's rather unlikely that the PlayStation 4 was designed to be a mass surveillance device, a Trojan Horse of a game console designed to slip spooks into the living room. Far likelier, Sony just wants the games to be more involving and better targeted for the customers, so they will buy and play more games.
"If we know enough about you to predict the next game you'll purchase, then that game can be loaded and ready to go before you even click the button," Marc Cerny said.
But still, the PS4 will collect a lot of information. That itself, in the right imagination, could be fodder for a good dystopian video game.
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