PARIS Lured by the siren call of mammoth shipments for cellular handsets, graphics companies will come to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Jose, Calif., next week to ponder technology game plans for the phone-based game market. There are choices to be made as mobile gaming drives mainstream 3-D graphics into new low-power, high-integration and real-time territory.
Large, relatively power-hungry discrete chips in PCs and traditional videogame consoles have defined the graphics world to date. But analysts said the phone is set to become the next target device where capabilities may be defined at the level of intellectual-property blocks.
The motivator for graphics system, software and silicon companies is the potential volumes. "The thing that's driving everyone crazy these days is the high shipment rate for phones 400 million a year," said Kathleen Maher, analyst at graphics research firm Jon Peddie Research (Tiburon, Calif.). "Even if you get 10 percent of the market, you still have 40 million."
Underscoring the intertwining fortunes of cell phones and 3-D gaming, the topic this year gets its own conference, co-located with GDC. Ilkka Raiskinen, senior vice president of media and entertainment at cell-phone giant Nokia, will keynote the GDC Mobile conference, pitching the company's N-Gage mobile-gaming platform. Separately, the Khronos Group, an ad hoc industry group defining subset profiles for the OpenGL graphics standard, will discuss its upcoming OpenGL ES, a standard for advanced 3-D gaming on mobile devices.
Companies pursuing the new mobile graphics opportunity include well-known players such as ARM Ltd., Intel Corp., STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments Inc., as well as the lesser-known BitBoys, Imagination Technologies Group plc, NeoMagic MediaQ and Seiko Epson. PC 3-D graphics experts such as ATI Technologies Inc. and Nvidia Corp. are also watching the mobile market closely.
Although the first-generation 3-D videogames for handsets will render 3-D graphics in Java or software game engines, mobile-phone makers will start integrating 3-D graphics hardware acceleration in their handsets as early as next year, analysts said. Between now and then, there are decisions to be made.
Finding the right balance between high performance and low power consumption is one key. "A new architectural approach optimized for power consumption in a processor is a good bet," said Randall Fahey, a consultant with market watcher Forward Concepts (Tempe, Ariz.).
Reducing the amount of data transfers from processors to memory is a major factor in power consumption, he added. In that regard, NeoMagic Corp.'s MiMagic, an ARM-based applications processor, "seems to make some sense. Lots of processing occurs in the memory structure without moving things around very much."
The chip uses circuit structures that perform bit-level processing within an array of memory cells, said Mark Singer, vice president at NeoMagic.
Integration is also key in cellular graphics. "This market will trend toward integration very fast. It has to, for size and power savings. So that's also going to affect chip alliances," said analyst Maher.
Indeed, ARM already has partnered with Imagination Technologies to develop MBX, a graphics coprocessing core based on Imagination's PowerVR core. A full version of the MBX core is in beta release; a light version will emerge in the first half.
The Imagination technology provides "deferred texturing," a capability for processing only visible surfaces, resulting in reduced memory and bandwidth bottlenecks. It also uses a "screen-tiling" technique, which enables on-chip processing of large amounts of data, reducing the need for external memory.
An ARM 3-D coprocessing core would seem to be a slam-dunk, since the processor is used so widely in cell-phone baseband and applications processors. However, some chip vendors are seeking their own route to differentiation in graphics, and others said MBX may not be the optimal solution.
For instance, STMicroelectronics is working with an unannounced partner on a "very power-efficient" mobile 3-D implementation for its Nomadik applications processor, said Marco Rossi, an ST marketing manager. ST already holds an architectural license to Imagination's technology, and sources inside ST said the company will be adding Imagination's 3-D graphics to Nomadik.
Others have complained that MBX does not do an optimal job of power management. "It's really a repackaged version of PowerVR," said an executive from an application processor company, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Real-time capabilities may represent the biggest new wrinkle 3-D graphics makers face in the cell phone world. The classic problem is what happens when a user is playing a game and gets a call.
"How do you inform the user, who may choose to ignore the call or take the call and halt the game? And [how do you] manage the events after the user decides to accept the call or forward it to voice mail?" asked Manish Singh, vice president of marketing at applications processor designer MediaQ.
"OEMs [either will have to implement] the game hardware as an application processor and isolate the RTOS from the game, or they will have to find ways to switch between call-handling/network interface management and the game," said Singh.
Singh also called for standards. "Software and standard API-compliant hardware offerings based on the ARM instruction set are the best solution. Proprietary instruction sets used by SIMD [single-instruction, multiple-data]-based implementations are not only very inefficient, they will also fragment the developer community," he said.
MediaQ's application processor, called Katana, is based on ARM. The company will develop its own 3-D core, Singh said.
The multimedia cell phone that vendors are targeting today is a different beast from the dedicated mobile game players that some chip makers no longer have in their sights.
"A mobile game device will have to provide a best-in-class gaming experience to be successful," said Singh of MediaQ. In contrast, "the user's expectation of a multimedia cell phone is still that of a phone, in terms of battery life and cost."
Indeed, STMicroelectronics and NeoMagic have canceled plans to design silicon for dedicated mobile-gaming systems, once a hot target. ST dumped the 3-D graphics project on its SH-based Pocket Multimedia Platform last year. NeoMagic has dropped its 32-bit MIPS4Kc-based project, which featured a dedicated graphics-rendering engine. Today the two companies have separate cell-phone applications processors with separate plans for adding 3-D graphics to them.
Cell-phone maker Ericsson funded a Silicon Valley company called Red Jade in 2000 that was working on a proprietary mobile-gaming platform, reportedly with NeoMagic. But the startup went belly up before the product was launched.
Undeterred by failures
Those failures haven't deterred Nokia from pursuing its own mobile-gaming system. The N-Gage system uses Nokia's Symbian OS-based Series 60 software, which forms the basis of Nokia 2.5 and 3G cellular phones. The company also licenses the software to other cell-phone makers, partly in an effort to impede progress of Microsoft in the cellular arena.
Although Series 60 was not originally intended as a game software platform, Christian Lindholm, director of service and user experience at Nokia Mobile Phones and one of the core developers of the Series 60 code, said it will hold up as "a good platform" for N-Gage.