Late last year, I spent a surreal week in Florida driving around the Orlando-area highways in a Ford Fiat, a tiny automobile with the transmission of a wind-up car. As a wall of traffic threatened to remorselessly crush my Fiat like a plastic car beneath an unstoppable steel wall of death, I would floor the gas, only to have the transmission struggle as it tried to enter a higher gear. As the engine warbled like an asthmatic blowing into a plastic toy whistle, the Fiat would be incapable of going any faster than 40 miles per hour for 30 seconds or more, until finally lurching out of its shrill, trebling fugue state and lurching into a higher gear. Only then would the Fiat start driving like a regular car again.
Playing around with Sony's newest console over the weekend, it suddenly occurred to me that the PlayStation 4 is a Fiat, racing toward the future against the flying time machine of Microsoft's simultaneously released Xbox One. But that doesn't mean Sony has lost. Far from it. In fact, Sony's hoping that racing a Fiat against a time machine is the tortoise and the hare, all over again. And to the victor, go the spoils: whether Sony or Microsoft, the winner of this generation's console wars will conquer the living room and become the billion-dollar gatekeeper to all the media—videos, music, games, and more—that you consume through your television.
Ever since 8-bit was superseded by 16-bit, gamers have been clamoring for the next generation of consoles, called "next-gen." For most of gaming's history, this has meant pretty much one thing: improvements in horsepower. A console wasn't next-gen because it radically rethought the entire paradigm of sitting in front of a TV playing games; it was next-gen largely because the graphics were prettier, the games were faster and the experience was more streamlined than the consoles that had preceded it.
In many ways, then, the progression between so-called current-gen and next-gen consoles has been like stepping on the gas of a car and waiting for the transmission to change gears. When a new console comes along, it represents the cutting-edge in consumer technology for a time, but as the years pass, that technology starts falling behind until it's struggling to keep up with the demands that software developers are making upon it. When that happens, a console is replaced by its next generation, and the cycle repeats itself.
That's certainly what is going on as Sony upshifts from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation 4. The PlayStation 3 was the first Sony console with high-definition graphics, a beefy GPU, a built-in hard drive and networking capabilities, and the PlayStation 4 just shifts those capabilities into a higher gear. It has a faster processor, better graphics, more RAM, faster networking and an even bigger hard-drive. The menus have been streamlined to be more easily navigable from across the room. The PlayStation DualShock controllers have been redesigned to be more ergonomic and more tightly integrated with Sony's PlayStation Eye camera. These are all improvements, but not paradigm shifts: The PS4 won't change the way you play games in your living room, only incrementally improve the existing experience.
That's not a bad thing. It's the way new consoles have always worked. In fact, the only reason the incremental nature of the PlayStation 4 is worthy of comment at all is because it stands in sharp relief against the Xbox One, which aims to be next-gen in a different sense than the PlayStation 4: it wants to upset the living room forever. With the Xbox One, Microsoft has unveiled a console that can understand what we say to it, and even intuit what we want from our body language. It can read your gestures, hear you speak, control the other gadgets in your living room, and even peer through your pants to see your dong.
With the Xbox One, Microsoft imagines a future of machine interaction in which our gadgets are more than silicon-minded Helen Kellers, blind and deaf to everything but our touch. But one problem is that the defining quality of the future is that it's not quite here yet. That's certainly true of the Xbox One: as my colleague Mark Wilson has pointed out, all of its advanced modes of interaction simply don't work very well. In fact, the most dependable aspect of the Xbox One's interface is using a traditional controller to navigate menus and control your console, just like you would on the PlayStation 4.
Both Microsoft and Sony want their consoles to be the most important box in your living room, the gadget through which you buy and consume every type of media that goes through your TV. In order to get you to give them that power, Microsoft's pitch is that the Xbox One will let you interact with your living room in a more natural and intuitive way than ever before. But there is a problem with that pitch: ultimately, there's nothing more natural about talking to a machine than pushing a button. After all, our brains are already programmed to understand buttons, and we intuitively know that if you press one and it doesn't work, that button must be broken. But if a machine doesn't understand you, who is to blame: you or the machine?
Perhaps this is the brilliance of the PlayStation 4: everything it does is attainable today. Sure, the PlayStation 4 mucks around with gestures and cameras just enough to allow you to play a dance game or two on the system, but it doesn't otherwise stray too far from what Sony already knows works. Microsoft's gamble on futuristic UIs might eventually pay off, but in the short term, it's going to introduce a lot of stress into people's living rooms.
There are no such questions associated with the PlayStation 4. It works just like any video game console you've ever used. Everything about the PS4—right down to the softly ululating, vaguely New Agey music that burbles beneath the menus—wants to soothe you and relax you. It wants to own your living room by dint of never stressing you out enough to make you want to turn it off.
This is Sony's gamble. The PlayStation 4 is a slow, steady foot on the technological accelerator, steadily building speed and momentum until the gears of the future shift. But what Microsoft is trying to do with the Xbox One is go from first gear to third, and that's where Sony's betting Microsoft's flying car from the future will stall out, crash, and burn.