Back to the future of 3D gaming

Matt Loney: Every year at IDF, journalists are given a sneak peek inside Intel's Architecture Labs. Now, some of the technology shown off five years ago is coming to fruition, and it's impressive stuff.

This month ZDNet UK received not one but two shameless bribes from companies looking for promotion, perhaps in the form of a friendly review or kindly news story. The news desk received -- carefully enclosed in a tiny resealable plastic bag of the type that might if it was rather larger be used for sandwiches -- a handful of deformed jelly babies that seemed to have fallen the wrong way into the jelly baby mould so that their eyes appeared to have popped out on stalks.

Perhaps it is a measure of how companies value a positive news story against a positive review that our reviews editor was sent a whole tin of altogether superior wine gums.

And perhaps it's a measure of the health of the industry that where once nothing short of a really cool PDA would even be looked at, now the wine gums are fought over tooth and nail. Compare our current situation to that of five years ago when ZDNet's Sleaze and Corruption Chart was topped by a trip to Rome for the Italy versus England game, a trip to New York including soothing Body Shop foot massage lotion and eye gel, and the world's smallest GSM phone.

Further down the chart were trips to Sweden, Monte Carlo, EuroDisney, Versailles -- the list goes on. Even the more dubious bribes such as HP-branded flowerpots (yes, really), an inflatable hammer and a virtual dinosaur pet that died after nine days illustrated just how much money was floating around.

The best we can hope for these days is a biannual trip to the West Coast for five days of chip talk at the biggest event on the hardware calendar. Yes, the Intel Developer Forum is here once more. This gathering, which used to take place among the golf courses of Palm Springs, where the only thing of even slight interest is Bob Hope's house perched high on the mountainside, is these days more likely to be found in the even more soulless environ of San Jose.

If there's one thing IDF can be relied on for, it's plenty of technology demonstrations, and from that follows plenty of news. But paradoxically, the most interesting technology is sometimes the most difficult to write about.

The most interesting technology is invariably tucked away from the limelight -- where Craig Barrett will be jostling on the catwalk with bunnymen -- and protected by PRs bearing NDAs (non-disclosure agreements to you). Signing these NDAs amounts to a promise not to write, talk or even dream of what lies on the other side of them. And what does lie on the other side is a sneak peek at the Intel Architecture Labs.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in IAL. A lot of it is available for public gaze on Intel's Web site, but some of it -- protected by the dreaded NDAs -- is not. However, there is always a chance that likely as not an Intel employee, free of the controlling gaze of the PRs, will give a presentation on some of the more interesting stuff at some point anyway, thus thrusting the technology into the public domain and allowing journalists to write about it after all.

Or sometimes we just have to wait five years, which is an eternity in the tech industry. For instance, five years ago at IDF, Intel's Architecture Labs people were showing off some of their more esoteric software. Luckily, most of it was also being demonstrated out in one of the quieter, more technically orientated seminars, and so was written up at the time. There was the 3D desktop which allowed the user to push windows (with a small 'w') into the background where, instead of an icon on a desktop, a version of the document, project or whatever was being worked on, appeared in miniature.

There were the Jurassic Park-like dinosaurs rendered in real time walking over a 3D landscape -- and remember this was five years ago when 300MHz was the most a chip could muster. And there was the PDA. Intel didn't have a great deal to show on the PDA, but company representatives made a prediction: that in five years, you'd be able to carry the power of a desktop computer in the palm of your hand.

Journalists, being the cynics that we are, naturally took that with a pinch of salt. But, after seeing a recent demonstration at the Game Developers Conference in London of the latest handheld technology (and yes, it was Intel stuff), Intel's prediction seems to have been spot on.

The demonstration attracted a disappointingly small audience -- all of a dozen games developers -- but that could have been because it was hidden at the back end of a seminar on programming Intel's XScale processor in assembly language. (If you don't know what assembly language is then chances are you're over the age of majority, and have not only have no business knowing what assembly language is, but have no hope of ever understanding it.)

The demo, of an HP iPaq PDA based on the XScale processor, showed a real-time fly-by over a detailed 3D landscape. The landscape was generated by a custom-built X-Forge application called Uphill Island. Another clip shown at the conference was Fathammer's Spaceflight sample -- a 3D, deep-space shoot 'em-up. Both clips were clearly of a quality which, five years ago, you would have been lucky to see on a desktop PC.

Now, I'm not promoting Intel here. After all, Intel stopped dishing out handfuls of processors to journalists years ago -- at about the same time that journalists started asking why on earth we would ever possibly need a processor that runs faster than 300MHz (Black & White answered that), though I am not for a moment suggesting that the two are connected. But, the demo of just what the XScale processor is capable of was nothing if not impressive. Even people at a naval surface warfare centre in the US were interested. Not only, I suspect, does XScale point the way to the future of mobile gaming, but also to some less innocent activities.

Sadly, not all technology on show five years ago did quite so well. There was a company called Colorado Micro Displays, which produced miniature displays that would clip onto a pair of glasses and generate a monitor display floating magically in front of the wearer. In a year or two, we were told, the technology would be so cheap that we would be able to pick one up for a couple of hundred bucks. Sadly, Colorado Micro seems to have followed the dot-com industry south, and while similar heads-up displays are available today, they're still not cheap and there is still no easy way to connect them to an XScale PDA.

It will happen. An XScale PDA, coupled with some decent software and a head-up display (and don't forget a GPRS connection for multiplayer games) will be the ultimate gaming platform. If anybody is working on one please send it in. We can't guarantee that we'll write nice things about it, but we promise to send you some jelly babies by return post.

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