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Tapwave's 'Helix' Specs Revealed

Tapwave Inc., a Silicon Valley startup located in Mountain View, CA, founded in Spring of 2001 by Peng Lim, Byron Connell and a large group of ex-Palm employees, announced a new handheld gaming console on Monday night at the Palm Developer Conference with

Game Developer, Staff

May 8, 2003

11 Min Read

The company hopes it will take over where Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance leaves off. Helix is aimed at "technology enthusiasts" between the age of 18 to 34. The high disposable-income bracket that enables them to purchase this device for themselves rather than having it purchased for them by their parents as gift. It’s placed between the Nintendo Gameboy Advance and the Nokia N-Gage in terms of features and price, offering more hardware features than the GBA, along with full Palm OS PDA functionality, but lacking the direct cell phone capability of the N-Gage. While no specific game titles have been announced tentative partnership development agreements have been mentioned with Activision, Digital Eclipse, Infogrames/Atari and Midway Home. No pictures are currently available of the system, because the Tapwave wouldn't allow it, and all that is currently available to show is a non-descript prototype in a plastic box that looks nothing like the final unit. Even sketches are hard to come by, because the case design hasn't been finalized. "Sneak peeks" you see on the Internet or in games magazines over the coming months will be pure conjecture until Tapwave make an official announcement. The specs include the following: - 480x320 “double density” display - Reflective TFT LCD - 3.8” diagonally measured LCD - Backlit display with brightness control - Landscape & Portrait screen modes - Touch-sensitive digitizer screen - Analogue joystick with depress fire button action - 1 application programmable function button - 1 pause/home button - 200Mhz ARM 920T CPU (ARM9TDMI core) - ATI Imageon 100 graphic accelerator - 8 Mbytes of VRAM - Yamaha sound - Headphone jack - Dual USB 1.1 Connectors (custom form factor) - Infrared transceiver - Dual SD Multimedia Card - SDIO support to enable FM Radio, 802.11, digital cameras or GPS - Bluetooth facilitating wireless multi-player gaming - Left & Right trigger buttons - Vibration “rumbler” feedback - 4 application programmable action buttons - Stereo speakers - High score conduit - MP3 playback in hardware - 16-channel polyphonic Wavetable MIDI synthesiser - MPEG-4 video playback in hardware - JPEG decoder in hardware - Slim form-factor - 6 ounce weight (without batteries) - Dual lithium rechargeable batteries - 16MB Dynamic RAM - Graffiti 2 - Palm OS 5.2 - Upgradeable to Palm OS 6.0 when available - Current Helix games & applications are forward compatible with Palm OS 6.0 - Input event queue updated to allow multiple, simultaneous button events - Motown Café Bluetooth API binary compatible with Palm Bluetooth applications - PINS and status bar support - Full Palm OS PDA functionality Tapwave said that the Helix would be priced "similarly as other games consoles". Whether this means consoles when they are first released ($300-$400), or similar to consoles as they're priced today (around $149) is open to conjecture. Tapwave executives refused to make statements about its price until they are closer to their end-of-year release date. Nor has the company revealed its revenue model. Obviously the unit will support traditional up-sell of commercial and shareware titles, along with possible software rental, but whatever the final decision is, it will alter the way the unit is sold and for how much. From talks with Byron Connel, Senior VP of Marketing, it appears that this may be the first Palm OS handheld to adopt the razor blade business model that other successful console manufacturers have followed. Tapwave hopes to turn its website into a distribution hub by requiring registration by all Helix owners that wish to use Helix software. Tapwave is currently establishing a developer program that will encourage developers to support the Helix by supplying a distribution channel, idea generation assistance, and product development aid. Currently there is a preliminary SDK available upon completion of a signed license agreement. Tapwave appears intent on supporting independent developers, and developers who want to publish their titles using Tapwave’s distribution system. The display measures 3.8" diagonally, double-density 480x320 pixels in 16-bit color depth with a bright white, cold LED mounted on the side. It also has a back diffuser to give even illumination across the entire surface area. It’s about the same dimensions and pixel density as the Sony CLIE NX70V. Located on the top of the unit are dual SDIO compatible SD card slots in which you can plug a Flash RAM expansion card, or software distributed on ROM SD cards. Bluetooth support is built in. The form factor will probably be slightly larger than the Game Boy Advance to accommodate Helix's larger screen. You can rotate the handheld too -- it's meant to be used in either a portrait or landscape mode, and the buttons are designed to support either configuration. The final positioning and layout of the four application-programmable buttons has yet to be determined. But after lengthy talks with the Helix development team, it is likely it could well use the classic "cross" configuration found on joypads for the SNES and PSX, as Tapwave seems intent on having a D-Pad input control. Creating applications for the Helix will be the same as for any Palm OS 5 application. You'll use a specially version of the Palm OS 5 simulator from Tapwave that will support both a portrait and landscape mode, coupled with Microsoft Visual C++ to create a Win32 DLL that simulates what will happen on the hardware. The analog joystick and extra input buttons are emulated in the simulator via a standard USB joypad. The other way to create applications will be with Metrowerks CodeWarrior 9.0, updated with a patch available from Tapwave and debugging done on the actual hardware. Current prototype debug units feature a serial port to allow debugging Palm OS 5 until CodeWarrior 9.2 is released that will support USB debugging. The intention of Tapwave is to offer 100% compatibility with existing Palm applications. The CPU is based around the Motorola i.MX architecture, from the press release it appears to be an MC9328MXL that uses the ARM9TDMI core -- meaning no hardware floating point. Essentially it's a standard 32-bit RISC chip with aa 5-stage integer pipeline and MMU that powers the operating system and applications. It's supported by an integrated LCD driver, Bluetooth communications, high-speed multimedia cards (MMC), secure digital (SD), and USB peripheral connectivity. The audio hardware is a Yamaha sound chip (the model was not specified) with a an audio amplifier. The Yamaha model chosen is capable of 16-channel polyphonic MIDI audio using Wavetable synthesis, including high-quality MP3 and PCM decoding on-chip. Graphic acceleration is provided by ATI, though don’t expect a Radeon 9700 Pro. The capable, yet diminutive ATI Imageon 100 developed specifically for mobile applications provides 2D rendering in a power-efficient co-processor package that sits in-line with the 16-bit color LCD controller. The Imageon, with a 96-bit wide internal bus, provides two hardware cursors, panel rotation in ninety degree intervals, native MPEG-4 and JPEG decoding using an integer discrete cosine transform engine (iDCT) with the usual MEG standard motion compensation, scaling, color space conversion and a minimum of 30 FPS full-motion video. This means that the chore of decoding video won't fall onto the battery-hungry CPU, leaving it free to run other tasks. The Imageon is coupled to an external memory controller controlling 8MB of SDRAM video memory (four times the video memory of the original PlayStation console) for use as texture memory and in double & triple buffering. The Imageon provides the usual features, like 2D acceleration including line drawing, hardware sprites, triangle fill and bit-blit operations, alpha blending, 2D image object scaling and rotation, along with font caching and font anti-aliasing all performed in hardware. Tapwave adopted a lightweight approach to the API, suiting the needs of the Helix hardware. The emphasis is on high-performance and lightweight rather than the catch-all emphasis of the standard Palm OS. The Palm OS API is still accessible but games will probably rarely use it, other than for Palm-specific user interface elements. Library support is comprehensive, though currently due to the pre-release nature it is still under development with some holes in various areas, which Tapwave intends to fix by launch day. The library is logically broken down in to graphics, sound, communication, input, gaming and support. Graphics are supported by a lightweight, high performance 2D API that is a very thin layer interfacing to the hardware. It offers a common set of 2D rendering options. Sound is similarly set up. The graphics and audio can also be accessed via the usual Palm OS API calls. In the Gaming and Support library can be found facilities for storing high scores on a user's computer via Hotsync, and also on a central server with opt-in support. An MP3 decoder, JPEG decoder, and playlist support is found in these libraries too, along with digital rights management for Tapwave-specific applications to help combat piracy. The digital-rights management (DRM) features do not cover stand-alone media such as video or MP3 files; it's targeted specifically at protecting applications. The DRM feature is driven by verifiable user account that is tied either to a specific Helix device or to a removable SDIO card with OS support for verifying proof of ownership. The Communications API provides support for communicating via the Bluetooth stack Fathammer is one of Tapwave's partners, and the company is porting their X-Forge 3D game engine to the Helix to provide platform and device independence to game developers. X-Forge offers developers benefits similar to Microsoft’s DirectX with advanced 3D graphics rendering, physics, collision detection and resolution, multi-player gaming and multi-channel audio. One of the problems with all versions of Palm OS to date is that the Hotsync is limited to 64KByte executable binaries. This means that without some clever jiggering it was difficult to create large applications. Tapwave, realizing that modern 2D games require large quantities of animated graphics and high-quality audio, has addressed this by writing an encapsulation layer that addresses this problem and allows the large binaries to be Hotsynced. Palm OS 5 doesn't support native ARM executables; most applications are compiled into Motorola 68000 assembly and then emulated via the PACE layer. That effectively cripples the high-speed CPU, but emulated applications will run faster than if they were executing on a regular Dragonball processor. Palm made provision for small "Armlets" that allow an application programmer to compile individual functions into the more powerful ARM assembly code. There are certain caveats to this though. First, Armlets cannot access global data because the Motorola 68000 Dragonball and ARM9 core address memory in different formats. There are also 16-bit and 32-bit alignment issues to consider. Another problem is that even though new Palm OS 5 handhelds use a version of the Palm OS API re-compiled to ARM code for faster execution, to call a Palm OS function from an Armlet, the call must pass through a thunking layer. That translates the parameters to the function and then passes them through the PACE emulation layer. It’s also not possible to call any Palm OS function from an Armlet that returns a memory pointer, as the memory format will be different. Tapware has addressed many of these problems by providing a wrapper executable that allows an programmer to create an entire, ARM-only program that takes care of much of the messiness, along with a proper direct call layer to enable ARM code to call directly into the Palm OS API without going through a ARM-to-68000-to-ARM thunking layer. We briefly reviewed the Helix SDK and installed it onto a laptop and then spent some time tinkering with the API. Plugging in a standard Micrsoft Sidewinder joystick, we were able to try out Tapwave's demos running on the tweaked Palm OS 5 simulator, and compile a test program using Visual C++. They have changed the interface of the application launcher to make it very ergonomic. Obviously the difference between a simulator and the physical hardware is enormous, especially when the simulator is running on a 3GHz laptop but knowing how capable the first PlayStation was, and how fast an ARM9 clocked at 200Mhz is coupled with an ATI Imageon 100, this will essentially be a portable PlayStation. Initial developer reaction has been positive but cautious. Many people can see the juggernaut of Nintendo barreling down the highway towards them and are afraid of committing resources to yet another handheld that may suffer lackluster performance in the marketplace. Another aspect that concerns developers and publishers is the rampant piracy and ease with which it is done on the Palm OS platform. As the Palm OS developer community is made up of small, agile development teams, it may be that a large number of already established applications and games will quickly appear on the Helix platform with varying levels of support for the custom hardware. Tapwave has made announcements that various publishers are working on titles but anyone who's been around the game industry for any length of time knows that "early agreements" mean very little, especially where a new platform is involved. Further information can be found at http://www.tapwave.com.

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