The GDC 2004 is winding down, and it's now, when all the lights begin to fade and booths are being disassembled, that it's good to reflect on what was announced at the show and spot trends and strategies for the future.
Clearly, the advent of a new generation of handheld devices and related services was a major theme this year at the GDC. Although it was only hinted in at the show, I think it will be even more prevelent at next year's show, when the Sony PSP and a generation of new 3D-ready devices hits the market. The "traditional" console market is already populated with well known actors and products. It will be in the handheld arena (whether cell phones, consoles or PDAs) where innovation will surface via new gaming formulas, new hardware, and so on.
At GDC we saw and played with Tapwave's Zodiac, the PalmOS-based PDA/console hybrid. Its 3D performance is very impressive, sporting an ATI Imageon W4200 graphics chip. The games for the Zodiac show a level of sophistication similar to PC 3D graphics, circa TNT video chips. And remember we're talking about smaller screens here, so fewer polygons and not-so-big textures definitely do the job well. The Zodiac sports either 32 or 128MB of RAM, making it a perfectly capable gaming platform.
But let's not stop there. Both Nvidia and ATI and were showcasing the latest handheld 3D technology. Under the names of GoFORCE and Imageon, respectively, the companies showed what may very well be the hardware foundation for next year's 3D handheld devices. The GoFORCE was shown using an emulator only, as the product is not quite ready. Nvidia engineers promised performance that would support millions of triangles, and considering their track record, it might be safe to believe that claim. ATI's Imageon was actually shown as a prototype, using a motorbike racing game as an example. Its graphics were similar in quality and complexity to a Nintendo 64 -- not bad. Nvidia and ATI plan to provide their chips to system integrators, so they are incorporated into handheld designs along this year. Nvidia, for example, was showing several Ipaq-class PDAs which are supposed to incorporate the GoFORCE in coming months. Other companies, like PowerVR, also may enter the equation. PowerVR's MBX chip was also on display at GDC, offering a core specifically designed to meet the growing multimedia needs of low-cost, low-power-consumption devices. The MBX offers about 360 megapixels/second and a throughput of 2.5 million triangles per second. Using the optional vertex geometry processor, the MBX is even capable of doing tranform and lighting on the chip.
But there's even more looming in the horizon. At a GDC talk, Sony engineers provided a thorough, complete presentation on coding techniques for the upcoming Sony PSP (more powerful than a PS1, less than a PS2, in their own words). The platform shall be unveiled at Tokyo Game Show later this year, and it looks very promising: stencil shadows, skinning and morphing, display lists, hardware lights, alpha testing and blending, and a fully functional pixel pipeline are all there in a platform that's promised to be "much easier to code for than a PS2". Besides, PSP will have both WiFi and Bluetooth support, so it's hard to actually imagine the potential of the platform in the hands of a marketing machine like Sony's. For example, one Sony engineer stated that the PSP will be a fully functional USB device, so expansion modules can be purchased separately. Examples of possible USB expansions could include a digital camera and (here comes the fun part) a GPS for location-based gaming. Clearly, PSP is a platform to keep an eye on. Sony engineers actually showed several video demos for PSP-level graphics, which really raised the level of expectations in the audience. More to come (in emulator or actual hardware form) in May at E3.
Still, there are some questions about tomorrow's handheld 3D devices. First and foremost, there's the electrical problem: 3D chips draw significantly more electrical power, so it will be interesting to see how engineers will solve the battery-life problem. Nobody wants to play with a device whose battery life is ten minutes.
Second, there's questions about APIs. OpenGL has already stepped forward, and OpenGL ES (a proposal put forward by the Khronos group) is looking like a viable way of coding 3D applications on mobile devices. Nvidia's GoFORCE will support it, for example. Still, initiatives like Microsoft's XNA may also enter the equation. XNA, announced by J Allard at the GDC, will offer convergence between PC, Xbox and Windows Mobile development, so it seems like XNA could be the way to go when developing 3D games for devices like the Ipaq. It remains to be seen if, like PCs, handhelds will support several APIs (think OpenGL and DirectX), or if hardware manufacturers will decide to support only one API -- possibly provoking another API war. The PSP is a completely different story, however. At GDC, classic toolkits like Renderware and Havok announced PSP versions for later this year, so we can expect the PSP to follow the classic console production model.
Finally, there's the heat dissipation question. Nobody wants to play with a red-hot device in their hands, and 3D chips tend to get really hot. People joked about a 3D chip being hot enough to fry an egg...until a guy actually did that and posted a picture on the web. The only way to work around the heat problem seems to be the use of fans, but again, fans need electrical power, are noisy, and the air flow may be uncomfortable in the user's hands.
It seems clear that GDC 2005 will be more handheld-focused than ever: the industry will have better devices, more compelling games, and better development tools to work with. It will be interesting to see the evolution of handhelds this year, and see how these remaining issues are solved by the industry.