Whenever executives from ATI Technologies Inc. meet people who are skeptical about the company's three-dimensional cellular phone graphics technology, they console themselves with history.
"During 1997 and '98, when we described our graphics chips for notebook computers, people actually laughed," said Azzedine Boubguira, director of marketing for the handheld group at ATI. "They'd say, 'Why would we need a 3-D notebook?' "
Today, 3-D graphics accelerators are at the heart of many notebook PCs. And on the heels of that success, ATI and competitors Nvidia Corp. and Imagination Technologies Group plc are again pushing the graphics envelope, this time with hardware that could enable sports junkies to play a 3-D football game while waiting for a cell phone call in the back of a taxicab.
Though games may seem an unlikely economic engine, they are nonetheless believed to be driving a huge effort to deliver 3-D processor cores and chips to next-generation cell phones. "There was always a lot of talk about 3-D spreadsheets and 3-D word processors, but in reality, games drove 3-D into PCs and then into laptops," said Allen Leibovitch, program manager for semiconductor research at IDC (Mountain View, Calif.). "Because of games, just about every PC today ships with 3-D capabilities."
Analysts and industry observers think history is about to repeat itself as 3-D graphics take hold in next-generation phones. According to figures from IDC, annual revenue from cell phone games is expected to reach $1.4 billion in 2006, up from $160 million in 2003.
Game developers say the sudden explosion of cell phone games has occurred in parallel with hardware advances. "As the handsets added color screens, sound and additional memory, it enabled them to run games," said Jill Braff, vice president of marketing for Sorrent Inc., a maker of cell phone games. "There's just been a natural evolution that has allowed games and phones to take off as a marriage." Software developers are using the current level of hardware technology to install features unheard of a few years ago. Sorrent, for example, incorporates the crack of the bat, as well as vibration, in its cell phone baseball game whenever a "player" hits a home run.
Thus far, however, cell phone graphics have been strictly two-dimensional. That's changing now, as makers of graphics accelerators begin working with developers of software games.
Nvidia, for example, said its engineers are already collaborating with at least eight wireless-software developers to take the 2-D world of cell phone games into the third dimension during the coming months. "We're working with 80 to 90 percent of the developers," said Stuart Bonnema, technical-marketing manager for Nvidia's Handheld Division. "We're opening the kimono to teach them exactly how to write for our hardware."
So as game developers continue to cut licensing deals with the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, they will also be preparing to roll out a new breed of products that will replace today's stubby on-screen cartoon figures with realistic-looking 3-D players like those now seen in PC games.
A Gartner Dataquest study predicts that "hardware-enabled multimedia handsets" with three-dimensional graphics will jump from 40 million units in 2004 to 80 million in 2005, 164 million in 2006 and 244 million in 2007.
For makers of cell phone games, the coming age of 3-D adds more complexity to an already challenging software-engineering process. Even in today's 2-D world, creating a cell phone game is far from child's play, because hardware constraints prevent such games from growing much larger than 400 kbytes. Most of today's games range between 100 and 400 kbytes, and must be tightly packed into a flash memory that might not exceed 1 Mbyte. "The most obvious problem is that you just don't have a lot of space for your application," said Alex Galvagni, chief technical officer and vice president of engineering for Sorrent. "Being able to put graphics, sounds and other features, such as vibration, into a small space is a challenge."
Now, however, software makers must add more engineering effort to accommodate a new set of graphics accelerator architectures, in addition to 200 or so existing handset architectures.
Despite those difficulties, experts say, the move to 3-D is almost inevitable. Already, ATI has entered into a technology alliance with Qualcomm Inc. to develop a next-generation wireless 3-D gaming platform. Qualcomm's Mobile Station Modem baseband solution will use ATI's Imageon 3-D architecture, the companies said.
Similarly, London-based Imagination Technologies has said that Intel Corp. will employ its PowerVR cores for the new Intel 2700G multimedia accelerator, an advanced graphics and video processor for mobile devices.
Developers of the 3-D core technologies reportedly are making significant commitments to their efforts, and all have said they hope to broadly deploy the technology in next-generation phones. "We want to make our 3-D platform absolutely ubiquitous," said Bonnema of Nvidia.
In developing 3-D graphics accelerator technology for a cell phone platform, engineers say they are confident they have crossed the main technological hurdle: the ability to run a 3-D game without siphoning excessive power from the battery. Nvidia engineers, for example, say they reduced the power draw from a peak of about 20 watts on a desktop 3-D accelerator to about 20 mW on a cell phone graphics unit. The key, they report, was a fanatical attention to clocking issues. Similarly, ATI engineers have reportedly cut the power drain of their accelerators a thousandfold, from a peak of about 80 W on the desktop to 75 mW on a cell phone.
Questions remain, however, about whether cell phones will possess sufficient space for dedicated graphics chips. "Finding an extra 10 x 10 mm inside a cell phone is really tough," Nvidia's Bonnema said. "Space there is at an absolute premium."
IC makers are providing a choice for OEMs by marketing accelerator cores as well as dedicated chips. Nvidia, for example, has introduced the GoForce 3D core, which allows system-on-chip developers to incorporate Nvidia's RTL instructions in their own chip, which can subsequently be used by cell phone manufacturers. The company said that the core solution is well-suited for tightly packaged cell phone environments because it enables chip makers to employ the technology without adding to the physical space used inside the phone.
Industry analysts said last week that by offering cores along with dedicated chips, graphics chip makers are hedging their bets. "They're seeing the handwriting on the wall," said Leibovitch of IDC. "Most phones will need the graphics [engine] to be built into another chip."
Leibovitch contends that 3-D graphics are likely to succeed, but are hardly a slam dunk. "The only dedicated 3-D game platform has been the N-Gage from Nokia, and that has not been a runaway success," Leibovitch said.
Industry engineers point out, however, that on PCs and laptops, software-based 3-D accelerators gave way to hardware, eventually yielding to accelerator chips. For that reason, most industry experts predict eventual acceptance of the technology in cell phones some time after 2005.
"It could easily become a checklist item that everybody has to have in their chip set," Leibovitch said. "If that's the case, and if you don't have 3-D, you could run the risk that no one will buy your chips."