By David E. Williams
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(CNN) -- Kids aiming to persuade their parents to buy the PlayStation 3 have some new ammunition -- donating their PS3's down time to researchers could help cure Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or mad cow disease.
This November, Sony's PS3, with a price tag from $499 to $599, will challenge Microsoft's XBox 360 and Nintendo's Wii in a battle royale for holiday dollars when it hits stores in the United States and Japan.
The PS3 uses a powerful new processor called the Cell Broadband Engine to run highly realistic games like "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07," "Metal Gear Solid 4" and "Full Auto 2." It also has a 20GB or 60GB hard drive (depending on the model) and can connect to the Internet either wirelessly, or with an Ethernet hookup so gamers can download new programs and take each other on.
The PS3's chip is the same one IBM is using in a supercomputer it's building for the Department of Energy. That computer is expected to reach speeds of one petaflop, or 1,000 trillion calculations per second. (Full story)
"It has so much horsepower and, of course, when you're playing a game all that horsepower will be used for the game. But there are a lot of times during the day when somebody's not playing the game," said Sony's Richard Marks. "It seemed like a good idea to be able to use that horsepower for something else that is, in this case, good for mankind."
Sony worked with Stanford University's Folding@home project to harness the PS3's technology to help study how proteins are formed in the human body and how they sometimes form incorrectly.
Improperly formed proteins are linked to a number of diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gherig's disease, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad-cow disease.
"What you can imagine is that if a machine was assembled incorrectly, it can do damaging things," said Vijay Pande, who runs the Stanford project. "You can imagine a car that's screwed up and someone tries to drive it, then maybe it crashes into things and causing problems."
Proteins start out in the body as long strings of amino acids and have to assemble themselves into complex shapes -- a process scientists call folding -- before they can do anything. The challenge for scientists is that folding is difficult to observe because proteins are so small and the process is so fast -- about 10 one-millionths of a second.
Scientists are using computer simulations instead, but that has its own limitations. It takes about a day for a computer to simulate a nanosecond (one-billionth of a second) so it would take about 30 years for that computer to complete one simulation.
Folding@home uses a network of about 200,000 personal computers to simulate how proteins assemble themselves. Dividing the complicated calculations into smaller packets enables the computers to do jobs that would strain the most powerful supercomputers.
"These calculations that we have to do are very challenging. Even if we were given all of the supercomputer resources in the country we still would not be able to do the types of things that we can do with folding@home," said Vijay Pande, who runs the Stanford project.
A network of PS3s would run even faster. Pande said that a network of 10,000 PlayStations would increase speeds by a factor of five, and 100,000 would be 50 times faster than what they can do today.
"It turns two years into one month, and that's a huge thing for us," he said. "It's more than us just being impatient, there are calculations that we don't run right now because any calculation that would take more than two or three years, we don't even start it."
To participate, users will just download a program into the PS3's hard drive. Then they just need to leave the machine on when they're not playing. The Folding@home team will divide their complex calculations into manageable chunks and then send it to the participating machines. The program and data will take up 10 to 20 megabytes - or about the size of a handful of MP3 files, Pande said.
When the PS3 is done processing its chunk it will send the data back.
Makers say the program won't run when someone is using the PS3, because it might bog down the game.
Sony says it plans to sell about 2 million PS3s in the United States and Japan before the end of the year, and 6 million worldwide by next March.
Since all of those units are pretty much the same, developers did not have to make compromises that would slow the Folding@home program down.
"You don't really know what you're getting on any given PC, so you have to write the program in a general way so that it will run on weaker machines and stronger systems, Marks said. "They have to write programs sort of to the lowest common denominator, whereas on our system it can be finely tuned to completely leverage what we have."
The PS3 also has a graphic chip that lets users watch the protein as it folds and from different angles, said Klaus Hofrichter, another Sony developer.
"These interfaces are very nice looking, very scientific in a certain way. ... You can use the controller and navigate around," Hofrichter said.
That might make people more likely to download and run the program, Pande said.
All PS3s connect to the Internet, and Sony plans to make it easy for gamers to get the program when they go online, Marks said.
"What we want is for people just to have to make the decision to contribute electricity and benefit mankind," Marks said.
A screen shot from the PS3 shows what Folding@home users will be able to see.