PS5 will surely deliver breathtaking visuals but will it achieve true photorealism?
If there’s any takeaway from the upcoming launch of the Xbox One X, it’s that the hardware arms race itself isn’t over yet—it’s just that Sony and Microsoft’s game of one-upmanship is playing out over increasingly shorter cycles. Yes, there is almost certainly going to be a PS5 (and a successor to the One/One X, whatever that’ll be named). And until either console maker cracks the secret to effective cloud game streaming sometime in the next decade or so, there will continue to be new console generations/iterationss. But, with backwards compatibility and, well, iterativeness, being important aspects of console DNA now, the question remains: just how much will the experience of gaming change over the next couple years? Would a hypothetical PS5 with a Ryzen CPU and a 10 TFLOP GPU deliver something that’s categorically a generational leap over what we have right now?
It’s not easy to answer this question, and not for the reasons you’d expect. Of course, an iterative model for console upgrades reduces the scope for change by its very definition. This is evident in the way Microsoft and Sony have positioned the current crop of mid-cycle upgrades: the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X are really just machines that play the same games as their predecessors, only better.
"There’s a good chance that aspects apart from graphics—world simulation, physics, AI….the actualy core gameplay part—might get a transformational leg up with the PS5."
The likely inclusion of a Ryzen CPU will improve the situation for the PS5. Today’s consoles are heavily biased towards GPU performance. This has resulted in developers utilizing GPGPU functionality to offload general processing tasks to the graphics unit. While this does cut the consoles’ anaemic Jaguar CPUs some slack, it means that the GPUs themselves can’t be fully utilized for graphics loads. With a much better CPU-GPU balance, the PS5 could better utilize its GPU for graphics functionality. Apart from this, there’s a good chance that aspects apart from graphics—world simulation, physics, AI…the actualy core gameplay part—might get a transformational leg up with the PS5. The eighth-gen consoles’ Jaguar processors have the main reason that games this generational are really just better-looking versions of last-gen titles. A significantly faster processor would enable developers to create deeper, richer worlds. Visuals aren’t everything in a game and richer gameplay possibilities can have a much greater impact than better-looking hair.
Keeping in mind the timeframes a new console cycle demands, a hypothetical PS5 or Xbox One X successor is not likely to feature more than twice the GPU power of the One X. This is more or less in line with analyst Damian Thong’s prediction that a Playstation model with a 10 TLOP GPU will release in 2018. A 10 TFLOP GPU would most certainly count as a generational leap over the original PS4 in terms of graphics horsepower at 1080p. And that, truly, is the problem. Because the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X are both positioned as “4K consoles,” it simply wouldn’t be viable from a marketing standpoint to let PS5 titles have a lower rendering target. At 1080p, a 10 TFLOP PS5 offers over 5 times the GPU power of a PS4, enough to allow for a generational leap in visuals. At 4K, however, much of the leap in graphics prowess is wasted on getting games running at 4K in the first place, with not much overhead for improved visuals. In the PC space, the 1080 Ti makes for a good comparison. It most certainly can run today’s games in 4K at a fairly high framerate. But what happens when you dial the quality of the visuals up a few notches?
Now, even if the PS5 shipped with a significantly faster GPU than expected, and even if it was to target a lower rendering resolution, we’d still run into steep sides of the uncanny valley. The closer visuals get to being life-like without quite getting there, the greater the sense that something’s not quite right. However, as visuals inch towards photo-realism, the law of diminishing returns starts to apply—more computational effort for less easily-discernible benefit. Take Nathan Drake’s model from the Uncharted series. Drake’s character model in Uncharted 4 has over twice the poly count compared to Uncharted 3. Without a shadow of a doubt, Nathan Drake looks quite amazing in Uncharted 4 with beautiful animations, new skin properties and shaders. However the new shaders and lighting tech aside—does Nathan Drake look multiple times as good as the model from Uncharted 3? Going from the original Quake’s 400 polygon characters to just a few thousand in the early GTA titles takes you from a formless blob to a reasonable, emotive approximation of a person.
"According to Tim Sweeney, around 40 TFLOPS of GPU power is required to generate “truly” photorealistic dynamic scenes."
The human brain’s attuned to the subtle imperfections in a computer-generated scene—this is why even photorealistic CGI characters can look slightly “off.” According to Tim Sweeney, around 40 TFLOPS of GPU power is required to generate “truly” photorealistic dynamic scenes. While visuals will get better and achieve huge bumps, the PS5 may still wind up on the uncanny side of the valley. And to top things off, the breakdown of Moore’s Law means that we’re not likely to reach 40 Teraflop console boxes as soon as we’d like to think. With longer hardware development cycles, it’ll take hardware manufacturers a longer time to create hardware that powerful, and even longer for it to trickle down to console-friendly pricepoints.
The PS5 as a console is definitely happening, and likely to happen sooner rather than later. It will surely deliver breathtaking visuals, implement high end motion/facial capture technologies and middelware, and games will look better than what we have on the PS4, specially during its twilight years. We’d take Thong’s prediction of a 2018 release with a pinch of salt, but a timeframe sometime before 2020 is very likely. However, we’d temper our expectations a little. We expect multiple fold improvements in visuals and richer gameplay options due to a better CPU/GPU combination. “True” photorealism, however, will most likely be a difficult aim to achieve.