Sony announces NGP (aka PSP2) and talks Playstation gaming on Android [video]

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It was quite a day for Sony portable fans. Earlier today (well, technically yesterday) Engadget posted about some hands-on experience with the Xperia Play, aka the Playstation Phone. It sure looks real to me. Engadget is being coy about where this unit came from but post author Richard Lai says he's been using it as his primary phone for a few days now, with generally good results.

No 'official' games are available for it, but Lai loaded up some emulators and mapped the hardware buttons to emulator controls and had a go. This isn't final hardware but for an early look it seems promising enough.

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The big news, however, came later in the evening (US time) when Sony held what was leaked as a "business overview and strategy meeting" in Tokyo. Sounds intimate, right? Turns out this was the Playstation Meeting 2011 and over 1,000 people crowded into a grand ballroom to hear what was new with the Playstation brand.

President and Group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Kaz Hirai opened the meeting with a quick look back at the first years of the PS3 and the Playstation Network, then quickly moved on to mobile gaming. He acknowledged that the world of handheld gaming has changed since the launch of the PSP, and that cellphones today are capable of delivering a gaming experience that they couldn't obtain when the PSP launched.

His first product announcement was Playstation Suite, which brings Playstation gaming to Android smartphones and tablets, along with a "Playstation Certified" program that lets users know which Android devices are up to the task of delivering a quality Playstation gaming experience. First generation Playstation games will run, via emulation, on Playstation Certified hardware (there was some confusion as to whether they mean PSOne games, or early PSP games). There will also be a Playstation Store on Android. Playstation Suite content is scheduled to be delivered this year.

So that, presumably, is content for the Playstation Phone.

Kaz then went on to ensure us they still want to provide the "ultimate portable experience" in the form of the new hardware everyone was waiting to hear about. Rather than calling it the PSP2, they've code named it NGP, for Next Generation Portable, and it'll be out in time for the holidays.

At first glance at least, this is an impressive piece of gaming kit. It's got a 5" OLED touchscreen display with a 960 x 544 resolution (4x the current PSP), dual analog sticks (real sticks, not 'nubs'), WiFi, 3G, GPS, 5" touch pad on the back (for 1-to-1 mapping with the touchscreen), front and rear facing camera and a 3-axis electronic compass that serves as a gyroscope for motion controls.

The NGP will support a new media format based on flash memory. They look almost, but not quite, like an SD card. You can also play any (downloadable) PSP games on it; it's backwards compatible with the earlier system.

This isn't a 'slider' design like the Playstation Phone of the PSPGo, but a slab design similar to the original PSP, only bigger (5" screen, remember). You're probably not going to be tucking this thing in your pocket.

President of SCE Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida joined Kaz on stage to show off some games. Lots of familar (to Playstation owners) franchises will be coming to NGP: Uncharted, Resistance, Little Big Planet, Killzone, Hot Shots Golf and more.
They demoed Uncharted, and showed all the ways you can control a game. Basic movement is via analog stick or touchpad on the back. You can tap to jump or hit a button. To swing on a vine you can rock the device back and forth to gain momentum.

Another game, Little Deviants, had you rolling a ball through a landscape. By pressing on the touchpad on the back you'd create hills in the landscape, as if your fingers were actually pushing up from below.

During a Hot Shots Golf demo, Shuhei lined up his shot by going into a first-person mode and actually moving the NGP around as if it were a viewport. The gyroscope gives you that 'virtual reality' feel. We've seen gameplay like this on both the iPad and the Nintendo 3DS but it's nice to see parity here.

The UI of the system is called LiveArea and it seems to be part launcher and part social networking interface. You can jump out of a game into LiveArea and touch base with friends, compare trophies and that sort of thing. It has an application called "Near" that shows you what gamers physically near you are up to. It also tracks where you've been. (I'm sure this can be disabled.) If you see a game is really popular, you can jump into the Playstation Store and buy it on the spot (and then, presumably, join in the fun).

Once the first party stuff was covered, a group of game developers were invited on stage, one by one. I won't cover them all but want to touch on a few stand-out thoughts. Metal Gear Solid's Hideo Kojima was showing a demo of a ported versin of MGS4. He says his dream is to offer the same game on PS3 and NGP with saves in the cloud. So you can start playing at home on the PS3, head out with the NGP and pick up right where you left off, then transition back to the PS3 when you get home.

Epic's Tim Sweeney was there showing off the Unreal Engine 3on the NGP. He mentions that the NGP's GPU is roughly 4x as powerful as any other handheld's (including the 3DS, one wonders?) He also showed off a game that had been ported from the PS3 in 'about a week' and that was a pretty common thread. It sounds like porting between PS3 and NGP won't be an onerous task, which bodes well for a good supply of games for the system.

And that's about it for now. I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more about this new handheld in the coming months; it's sure to make a big splash at GDC in March and at E3 in June. The Playstation Blog has promised to post full specs and some nice artwork later on today, but until then I'll leave you with a couple of very low quality YouTube vids.These were captured via LiveStream Mobile so the frame rate is poor but maybe you can get a frame of reference, anyway.

I was ready to write off dedicated handheld gaming consoles in the face of iPhones and Android phones and tablets of all kinds, but I have to say at first glance the NGP looks pretty sexy with its combination of both traditional and touch gaming controls. Of course we have no idea what the price point will be and it really doesn't look very portable to me (but then, it's more portable than a 7" tablet, I suppose).

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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