Naturally, much of this week’s Vita push at Gamescom has been centred on the games – Uncharted, LittleBigPlanet and WipEout head up one of the strongest launch lineups of recent times. But hidden between the touch screen talk and trailer tsunami was a significant amount of information on the system that plays host to these games, the Vita’s OS itself.

Presenting Vita’s home screen, although this image is actually from E3, but it’s largely the same now excluding some updated icons. It’s all floaty circular icons, with a nice 3D wave animation in the background, similar to the PS3. On the side of the screen you can see three dots, representing three pages of icons (if you’ve spent any time with an iOS device, you know the drill). Up top there’s a 3G signal bar, a clock and a battery monitor. The icon in the middle reminds you that you’re on the home screen – when you have more applications open, these will also display next to the home icon, and a quick swipe left and right flicks between open apps. The top-right corner plays host to a notification counter, including received messages, party invitations or friend requests.

Clicking any icon on the home screen will take you into the LiveArea for that game or app – here we’re looking at the WipEout 2048 LiveArea, there’s also of a screen of Uncharted: Golden Abyss’ and the PlayStation Store’s in the gallery. As you can see, this is more than just a ‘are you sure you want to launch that game?’ dialog, instead presenting quick shortcuts to the leaderboards, your player profile, something called the “AG Museum” (presumably a supporting app), and a link to the PlayStation Store to grab DLC (the Fury DLC in the picture is actually for WipEout HD on PS3, and so is likely a placeholder). Uncharted’s LiveArea shows various stats both from your own game progress, and the online community, with a link to the Black Market trading part of that game. The PlayStation Store’s LiveArea just shows featured content at this time.

Of course, you can just ignore all of this and tap again on the “start” icon to go straight into the game, but it looks to be a useful place to view automatically-updating supporting content and information about your games without having to boot them up. Imagine Hustle Kings’ LiveArea telling you how many online games it’s now your turn in (that game supports turn-by-turn asynchronous play), or LittleBigPlanet telling you how many people have played your levels, all without having to go into the games themselves.

Lastly for LiveArea, there are also three quick links at the top of the panel. The first is to the game’s digital manual – remember, all Vita games will be available on the Store, with only some of those at retail in card form – the second is an internet search for the game, and the third icon isn’t quite clear. It could either manually refresh the LiveArea, or enable you to update the game/app without having to actually launch the game – if you can queue these, that’d be a very useful feature.

PlayStation Store
Speaking of the Store, here it is in non-final form. You’ve got a tab to switch between the game and video stores along the top – looks like the comic store won’t be returning for Vita’s launch – and a search function. Further down, it looks like Sony has taken more than a little inspiration from Apple’s iOS stores: there are three featured ads, and then a view that can flick between the latest releases, the best sellers, and ‘All Games’.

The product pages themselves are much the same, with artwork and product details. The rating system from the existing Store has also made it over. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Sony are making any kind of preview option compulsory on Vita games, whether it be a trailer or even a set of screenshots like you get on most mobile platforms, at least it’s not in this build of the software. It’s worth mentioning the little button with three dots in the bottom-right of the screen; that’s the options button, and shows up throughout the Vita UI.

PlayStation Network
Naturally, your existing PlayStation Network account will transfer straight over to your Vita – here’s hoping you haven’t gone for the pink profile option, or you’ll be met with a terrifying splash of colour. Straight from the profile page, you can see what your friend is playing and join them, or view their recent activity, whether that’s trophy unlocks or in-game progress. You can also go right into a chat.

Group chats can be either text- or voice-based, and messages can also contain attachments – in this conversation, the first message is an invite to a LBP level, with the second reply containing a screenshot. As you can see in the top-right, you can manually refresh conversations should you go out of WiFi or 3G range.

With the PSN, must come trophies. Here you can see the trophy list, with a tab on the top-left corner to view all trophies or only those unlocked on Vita. Even if you choose to view all trophies, you can see that games are labelled with which platform they are for – it’s not yet clear how this will work for games where progress can be transferred from PS3 to Vita and vice versa, like Ruin. What’s also not yet clear is if Vita games will have platinum trophies; it seems likely that it would work the same way as on PS3, with only the larger titles having the holy grail trophy.
Sony has yet to show off Vita’s media capabilities, but we do have some details. You can view photos taken with the camera application (using either the front or back cameras), as well as JPEGs, GIFs, BMPs, PNGs, and TIFF images. The music app is capable of playing MP3’s, unprotected ACC files and WAVs, with MPEG-4 (high, main, baseline and simple profile) videos also compatible. Interestingly, there’s no sign of the WMA and WMV support in the PS3 and PSP – whether that’s because it has yet to be implemented, won’t be present, or will be added later in a firmware update is unknown. We also don’t yet know how to get media actually onto Vita, presumably through Media Go or some future replacement application, although there is a ‘Content Manager’ app on Vita itself for on-device management.

Party is effectively an upgraded group chat application. You can set up any number of ‘rooms’ and flick between them, in which you can text and voice chat, as well as view who’s playing what, or jump into multiplayer games together. The best bit? Party runs in the background at the same time as games, so we finally have real in-game voice chat. Party rooms can also be favourited, and appear to exist even when empty, ready to be jumped into next time players log online.

Near is the halfway point between Vita’s GPS support and games, allowing you to unlock content for games by navigating the real world environment. Near also shows you where your friends are, as well as what other Vita users in the vicinity are playing, should you fancy a tube carriage WipEout faceoff. Note: the GPS chip is only present in the 3G version of Vita, and there’s not been any mention of how Near works on the WiFi only hardware – likely it just uses hotspot triangulation, but it’ll be interesting to see how well that works in practice.

Social Apps
Sony announced this week that Vita will also play host to non-gaming apps, and Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Skype will be the first of these (it’s not clear whether these will be available at launch or just after). There doesn’t appear to be any Vita specific functionality except the touch-centric UI, but it’s good to see Sony pushing the non-gaming capabilities of the console.
Other Apps
That’s not all though. Remote Play makes the jump to Vita, and there’s a new touch-centric web browser too (Flash not yet confirmed). There’s the obvious settings application, and a ‘Network Operator’ app for the 3G version. Sony’s Gamescom presentation also briefly flashed up a ‘Welcome Park’ icon too, although it’s not really clear what that means. It’s inclusion on the home screen in the same presentation means it’s unlikely to be a one-time setup tool, meaning it’s likely some form of startup app that briefly runs through your notifications. Or something.
So, that’s it, at least for now. It’s likely things will get moved around before the late-2011 Japanese launch, and maybe even again before the US/EU launch early next year, but we now have a pretty decent idea of what capabilities Vita will be shipping with aside from ‘it can play pretty games’.