Mobile phones: The next Game Boy?

UK chip designer ARM is pushing technology designed to turn PDAs and mobile phone handsets into sophisticated gaming devices

Gaming on mobile phones will not take off until the experience is on par with a 3D console, according to chip designer ARM Holdings, but this goal is not as far off as one might think.

ARM business development manager Noel Hurley said that all the pieces for 3D gaming on mobile phones and other wireless devices will be in place by Christmas 2003, and handsets will sport 3D hardware acceleration by 2005 or 2006. In the meantime, he expects Java-based games to take off with the generation of handsets being introduced around this Christmas.

The company dominates the market for mobile phone chip designs, and its cores also power Pocket PC handheld computers and the Game Boy Advance, as well as set-top boxes and other entertainment devices.

On Tuesday ARM demonstrated a 3D software platform called Swerve, developed with software company Superscape and Imagination Technologies, which makes the PowerVR line of graphics cores. Swerve allows ARM-based products, such as the Sony Ericsson P800 and Nokia 7650 or the Pocket PC, to display sophisticated 3D graphics from a game that is pared-down enough to download over low-bandwidth networks such as GSM and GPRS. Currently the Swerve engine is available for download, but not much software runs on the platform so far.

Swerve is a high-level, cross-platform technology that allows developers to simplify the way 3D objects are described, thus reducing the network bandwidth consumed by software. For example, the game could describe an object in 164 polygons, and Swerve would render about 10,000, according to ARM.

It is compatible with graphics programming languages such as OpenGL and DirectX, and existing games can be quickly translated into Swerve format, according to ARM.

Ultimately, ARM hopes that phone manufacturers will choose to include Swerve with their hardware, and in some cases integrate the PowerVR core alongside the ARM core for graphics acceleration. An earlier version of PowerVR technology powered the Dreamcast console from Sega.

Currently, a market is developing for "retro" games -- from the Atari 2600 era -- that can be easily implemented on the current generation of colour-screen mobile phones. But the potential is much bigger, ARM's Hurley said, anticipating a time when users will pay to play cutting-edge mobile phone games, just as they do for the Game Boy Advance.

"Will people spend money to play Space Invaders on their phone? Probably not," he said. "Will they spend money on a real-time strategy game, or Tomb Raider, or Civilisation, or The Sims? Once you get that level of gaming you can generate revenues in a number of ways."

ARM also demonstrated a higher-end version of Swerve, which is aimed at 3G phones. It generates graphics comparable to or better than a PSone console, and can automatically change screen resolutions, a complicated task that is necessary for the heterogenous mobile phone market.

For the immediate future, the challenge is to get the mainstream gaming industry interested in mobile phones. "The big developers have an eye on it, and when the business starts to show positive numbers, you'll see them jump in," Hurley said. "We need the big brands to come out there and spend millions of dollars to create the pull."

He predicted that by Christmas 2003, the Swerve software, or other 3D enabling technology, will have a big enough installed base that brand-name 3D games will start to appear for mobile platforms. Users of handheld computers such as Pocket PC will be the first to adopt 3D platforms, Hurley predicted, since they are already used to downloading and installing new software.

Wireless gaming devices could also be integrated with console and PC, games, allowing users to play certain "zones" of the game while they're out and about, Hurley said. This idea is already being considered by Sony, with the P800 smartphone.


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