Sony's Eric Lempel On PS3 Updates, Firmware Rumors

Is Sony's austere PlayStation 3's dashboard due for an extreme makeover, per recent rumormongering? What about universal voice chat? Searchable memory cards? Discrete feature updates? The battery display fluke de-glitched? And what's up with Hulu video service blocking? I tracked down Sony Director of Network Operations Eric Lempel to get answers to those question and others in the following two part interview. Part two is here. This is part one.

Game On: There's a rumor circulating that Sony has something big planned for the PlayStation 3 this year, a firmware update on the order of Microsoft's New Xbox Experience. True or false?

Eric Lempel: We've released a bunch of firmware updates to date, and we'll continue to do that. We're aiming to release them quarterly, and sometimes there are a lot of great consumer features in them, and other times they're just updates to help things behind the scenes. I should say that a lot of times when we do these updates, there's a ton of stuff in them for our developers, and consumers don't see the benefits of those until they play some of those games that come out later on.

I think it's important to know, a lot of people wonder why we do these updates when it just says something about security enhancements or that playability of software will be better. Actually, behind the scenes, there are reams of documents sometimes with improvements for developers, where they can take advantage of a bunch of new tools, or new ways to allocate memory, or other ways to improve performance. So I'd start off by saying that.

You'll definitely see another firmware update this year, but it won't be like what the rumors say. We're working on some consumer features that consumers will definitely like, but it's nothing like what you're reading about, and at this time I don't want to confirm any of those features because they're not completely locked down yet. We're looking pretty good, and timing is a little rough, but just in terms of that rumor, it's not the case.

GO: Have you guys talked about something down the line, be it six months or two years, of doing something radical with the interface along the lines of Microsoft's NXE?

EL: We always look at different things. Behind the scenes we do a ton of research and I think sometimes you see some of that research out there through questionnaires. But we're always looking into what consumer want and gauging the appetite for change.

What we find is that people really like our current interface. We did redesign the PlayStation Store last April to make some improvements, make it faster, make it better, and we're always listening to consumers. But right now the XMB [XrossMediaBar] is an Emmy Award-winning interface and people like it. They're very comfortable with it. So we're not looking to do anything radical. We'll still do some research behind the scenes and see what can we do to make things better, or how can we make it so consumers find content faster, but right now we're pretty happy with it. No plans right now to do anything like what the competitor has done.

GO: When Microsoft debuted its NXE, it was shift from an interface that moved left and right to an axial thing, where you moved more visually left-right and up-down, kind of like the XMB, just with the vertex sitting down in the lower left corner and everything slightly stylized. What was your reaction to that?

EL: You know, I didn't really think about it that way. I mean, I saw some comparisons when it came out, but that's very interesting that you say that. You know, hey, it's great, if they like our interface and want to copy it, as long as that's legal, sure. I don't really know how they go about making their plans or the strategy behind them, but if they've found that we're doing something right and they want to copy that, more power to them.

GO: I've been reading through the reactions to your last PlayStation Blog post, the one about the 2.8 update, and noticed that a lot of the folks who reacted less positively to that particular update were doing so because they wanted more detail about what was in the update. Why the lack of disclosure there?

EL: Well basically in the updates that we do on the blog, it's really to tell consumers this is what you can do today with your PS3, or in the next few days when we release a firmware update. It isn't about diving into the tech and letting them know six months from now you're going to see a game that may have better effects in a certain area because we've put this in such and such update. That's not as digestible for the majority of consumers. It just won't work.

I mean, there are consumers interested in the tech, and they can probably deep dive in developer forums on that, but we usually don't release a lot of our developer info except to our licensed developers. It's kind of separating the consumer experience from the developer experience.

So, you know, that's why I'd love for them to understand that when we do these things, there's a lot of reason behind it, there's a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of testing, but they don't always get to see the benefits immediately. The blog is really to talk about here's what you can do with it, not here's what a developer you know and like might be able to pull off in the next six months.

GO: Have you ever considered separating out the updates into nondependent components? To allow some features to come out or get patched faster than others?

EL: You know, we very much thought about that, and actually with 2.8 we implemented something that we didn't talk a lot about. We actually gave consumers the option to update. What I mean by that is, prior to 2.8 you had to update. So you'd turn on your PS3 and it would say, you know, if you want to go in the store, if you want to play an online game, or go into PlayStation Home, it would say there's an update available, please update before moving any further.

With 2.8 it was an option. Users didn't have to update when we released it, and actually weren't prompted to do so, because there wasn't any consumer-specific functionality. I'd say a majority of consumers out there who just wait to get hit by these updates didn't even know about it. They might still not know about it.

GO: What about universal chat, by which I mean voice chat outside games. You can currently chat with other gamers from within an online game, but not when you drop out.

EL: Yeah, definitely, we realize that a lot of people want that. It's one of the most requested features, and it is something we're looking into. It's a very complex feature, but we are looking into it.

GO: Search functions for memory cards to find save files faster?

EL: That's actually something we're not working on right now, but it's something we can look at. I have seen that requested a couple times, but I think when we look at the priority list, it's not very high up there.

GO: How about the battery-life-of-controller glitch, where it cuts off the system time when you tap the PS button? I keep seeing that pop up, but it's like this weird fifty-fifty thing, where fifty percent are angry about it, and other fifty percent are angry at the people who're angry about it.

EL: You know, I'll tell you, I personally don't like that either, and it's something that's definitely being corrected. You can put me in the angry camp.

GO: Your reaction to Hulu [the online video service] apparently blocking PS3 users from watching videos in the browser?

EL: Last week we stared hearing that, and we've tested it out here, and it does seem you can't access Hulu. You can access the site, but when you go to play a video, you get an error message. We're not quite sure why that is. If I speculate I might guess it's because they refined their list of supported browsers and we were a victim, or maybe they're intentionally blocking the PS3, but right now it doesn't work, and you'd really have to talk to Hulu about why that is. We have an open browser, there's a ton of sites that do work, and it's compatible with other video streaming sites like YouTube and music streaming sites, so. But it's true, Hulu's not working right now and I'm not really sure why.

GO: Do any of your guys ever pick up the phone and just say hey, what are you guys [Hulu] doing?

EL: Yeah, sometimes we do. It depends. That is something we'll probably look into, but at the same time, our browser's there to let our users do what they want and browse wherever they want, and we can't always chase down all these sites and say hey, how come it's not working today? The browser's built on unique code, so it's not like any of the other browsers out there, and there are some things that are just incompatible.

Click here for part two, and f or more gaming news and opinion, check out twitter.com/game_on .

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