SAN JOSE, Calif. Seeking growth beyond the PC, Intel Corp. showed its first handheld graphics chip and Microsoft Corp. said it would unify its PC and console graphics environments on the opening day of the Game Developers Conference here.
Aimed at a rising tide of cell phones and PDAs with 3D graphics, Intel described Marathon, a 3D chip it will formally launch in tandem with its next-generation cell phone chip, Bulverde, at the Intel Developer Forum in Taipei, Taiwan, in April. Intel is working with 20 game developers and expects to have five game titles running on the chip using the OpenGL ES interface when it is launched.
Marathon will render just short of 1 million triangles/second and support MPEG-4, MPEG-2 and Windows Media Video codecs for video at resolutions of 640 x 480 or higher. The chip has a peak power consumption of 100 mW and comes in a 14 x 14 mm package.
Intel expects the first generation chip will mainly be used in high-end PDAs but expects future versions could be integrated with its Xscale-based baseband chip to appear in cell phones, probably in 2005.
"All PDAs are moving to VGA in 2004 from QVGA," said Rob McNair, marketing manager for handheld graphics at Intel.
A next-generation version of Marathon will support the emerging H.264 video codec as well as a still-undetermined interface to 1-inch hard disk drives. Support for Global Positioning Satellite and 802.11 interfaces is also on Intel's roadmap.
Intel's entry comes as a host of graphics chips for handhelds from companies including ATI Technologies, Nvidia and others. The chips target cell phones that are beginning to adopt 3D graphics for gaming as well as devices that merge gaming, cellular, MP3 audio and digital cameras.
PC meets console
Separately, Microsoft Corp. announced it is taking steps to merge the graphics software environments of PC and its XBox game console into a set of middleware services and tools it calls XGA. The move brings Microsoft's DirectX graphics applications programming interface from the PC to the XBox for the first time, essentially letting game developers write one title that can be used on PCs and XBox machines.
The move could help attract more game developers to the XBox where it currently lags in number of titles behind Sony Corp.'s Playstation and Nintendo's Gamecube.
"This is how Microsoft gets bigger [in consoles] fast," said Rick Berman, chief operating officer for ATI Technologies that makes graphics chips both for PCs and the next-generation XBox. "This is a shot across Sony's bow," Bergman added.
In a keynote speech, Microsoft executives said the XGA platform will let developers focus more on creating better game content while the Microsoft tools handle software plumbing issues. As much as 80 percent of the work of developing a new game currently focuses on handling hardware-related issues, and developing a new title can cost as much as $20 million, they added.
"This offers the opportunity for breakthrough experiences in gaming. We think we can flip the 80/20 ratio," said J Allard, a vice president of the XBox division at Microsoft.
XGA will include the DirectX API, other audio and graphics tools merged from both PC and console platforms, a common method for addressing input devices that could be used on both platforms and tools for online gaming services. XGA will also include the High Level Shader Language, an emerging C-like language for graphics programming.
XGA will be part of the next major version of Windows, dubbed Longhorn and expected in late 2005. It will also be in the next-generation XBox, expected about the same time. Versions of XGA will begin to emerging in development tools for both platforms soon.
Allard promised XGA would be a stable environment across several product generations, in contrast to the software environment for competitors that often sees radical change between generations.
Microsoft has picked IBM Corp. as a lead semiconductor partner for its next-generation XBox, suggesting a move from the X86 to the PowerPC. However, programmers will be able to write to high-level abstractions in the next-generation XBox, insulating them from that CPU transition, Allard said in an interview.
Top-tier developers who still code to the underlying hardware will still be able to access the processor and graphics chips directly, he added.