EyeToy Chat: Hands-On Impressions

We sit down with Sony's latest intriguing EyeToy proposition to bring you this first hands-on.

In a few years, people will point to the PlayStation 2 and say, "That's where convergence began." Already incorporating a CD player, a DVD player and an online-capable hard drive-supporting videogame console, the PlayStation 2 is now extending its expansive web to include video conferencing. .

Kikizo had the chance to speak with Luis Fernandez, lead developer of EyeToy Chat, at Sony's London offices recently. Fernandez proposed EyeToy Chat while working at Sony's prototype group. People weren't convinced. He was told that video conferencing was simply beyond the realm of possibility on the PlayStation 2.

"Principle among Sony's concerns for EyeToy Chat are simplicity and security."

Yet, here we are, and EyeToy Chat is a reality. The technology uses the EyeToy camera - already in millions of living rooms thanks to the top-selling EyeToy Play - and a TV for live one-to-one video conference calls, video mail, simple games, and audio and text chatting with multiple users.

You'd think that telecoms companies would be averse to the idea of people communicating for free. But, as Fernandez explains, an expected consequence of launching EyeToy Chat is increased broadband adoption - a demand telecoms companies are all too eager to supply. The technology has already caught the eye of executives throughout Sony - Ken Kutaragi was part of the first international video call - and could find its way into other upcoming Sony products.

Principle among Sony's concerns for EyeToy Chat are simplicity and security. This technology has the potential for tremendous abuse, and the company has incorporated security and parental guidance measures at every step. There is a two-layer system in place that will allow abusers to either be blocked from interacting with their victims or to be banned outright from Central Station, Sony's online hub for games and now communication.

"During chats, you can also take the time to play one of three simple games included with the service."

Video chat - which requires any form of broadband - is only possible between people who have added each other to their Friends lists. Remove a user from your Friends list and you're removed from their list too, so you won't have to worry about people you don't want to speak to anymore bothering you. The EyeToy Chat service is bolted on top of Central Station, meaning that there is total accountability at all stages.

Video quality is good; No one is going to confuse this for a professional video conference setup, but then again, it isn't. Depending on your connection, you'll be able to reach up to 12.5 frames per second, which in a real-world scenario is more than adequate. Slower connections are facilitated by a sliding bar of performance, going all the way down to static images and downgraded audio.

During chats, you can also take the time to play one of three simple games included with the service: chess, draughts (checkers), or battleships. Certainly not the most exciting of games, by Fernandez's own admittance, but then the PlayStation 2 is being pushed rather hard just to decode all that video information. And besides, the games are a good ice-breaker when you're speaking to a new acquaintance.

Video mail messages, which can be as long as thirty seconds, are stored on Sony's servers, and each user will have an inbox capable of holding two-and-a-half minutes worth of video. This decentralisation allows you to get on the system to check your messages from any suitably outfitted machine.

The last major feature is the party line-like multi-user chat rooms. These allow up to sixteen people to get together online for an audio chat. Each person is represented by an image taken by the EyeToy camera, and audio conversations are limited to 10-second snippets, making sure that blabbermouths don't dominate the channel and drown everyone else out. In addition, up to 256 users can enjoy simple text chat.

"But Sony is not the only company charging to take over your living room."

To accommodate all this extra typing, Sony has devised a new onscreen keyboard that relies on a combination of the analog stick and the four face buttons. The interface is easy to get into and is vastly superior to the current onscreen keyboard used on Central Station. In fact, Sony is considering folding this new interface into Central Station itself and later on perhaps even the PSP.

As this past E3 demonstrated, though, Sony is not the only company charging to take over your living room. Microsoft is also in the process of developing a video conferencing package via Xbox Live. The service is being developed in Japan, and it is expected to be rolled out there before spreading to other territories.

Fernandez, perhaps unsurprisingly, isn't too worried. Broadband has attained greater average speeds in Japan, thanks to the nature of the country's telecoms infrastructure. If Microsoft thinks it can replicate the service outside of Japan, according to Fernandez, the company is "living in a fantasy world."

EyeToy Chat for the PlayStation 2 is set for release this autumn.

Alex Wollenschlaeger
UK Editor, Kikizo Games

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