Sony PlayStation 3 users may soon be asked to share the supercomputer power of their video game consoles with companies that lack their own technology to run complex research projects, the Financial Times was told.

Sony Computer Entertainment is in discussions with a number of companies about possible commercial applications for the PlayStation 3. This comes in the wake of its non-profit partnership with Stanford University in March that harnesses the spare computing capacity of registered PS3s for the analysis of protein cells.

However, because this would be a commercial proposition that would benefit profit-making organisations, Sony is studying whether it would need to offer incentives, such as free products, to persuade PS3 owners to participate.

PS3s run on the revolutionary Cell processor – co-designed by Sony, IBM and Toshiba – and they can be linked with tens of thousands of other idle PS3s via the internet to run a single analytical programme. A network of just 10,000 PS3s would have as much power as a 200,000-strong network of personal computers.

Masa Chatani, chief technology officer at Sony Computer Entertainment, said in an interview with the FT on Tuesday that the company had received numerous inquiries regarding this “distributed computing” model.

Under Stanford University’s Folding@Home programme, which studies how protein cells assemble, PS3 users can join the network by clicking on an icon on the screen. Stanford automatically sends packets of data out to these machines – which have to remain switched on when they are idle – to analyse and collect, tabulate and visualise the results.

“This kind of computing model could be used in a commercial application,” Mr Chatani said. “For example, a start-up or a pharmaceutical company that lacks a super-computer could utilise this kind of infrastructure. We are discussing various options with companies and exploring commercial applications.”

He added: “If there is a big problem to be solved, each computer is responsible for processing a small chunk of information, then by analysing it all together a big conclusion can be made. At any single moment, there are 11,000-12,000 PS3 users participating in Folding@Home. The number of contributors is far greater than we had anticipated.”

A commercial endeavour would be a more difficult strategically, Mr Chatani admitted, because users would be loathe to let companies use the power of their PS3 Cell processors for free.

One scenario, he said, would be for a company to offer each of its PS3 users incentives such as free products, or points, in exchange for their participation in distributed computing.

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