Salem’s Fire #26: Portable Tomorrows


Though I have yet to see one in person, I have read that the first computer capable of producing a three dimensional image has been made available for sale. I am not talking about the three dimensional capabilities of the various video cards, but of a screen that renders a three dimensional image by a method very similar to stereophotography. Suddenly, we are very close to a revolution in computing. Very close.

Sony has been busy lately, pushing handheld devices loaded with absolutely every feature known to man built in or available. Backlit keyboards, medium-high resolution cameras, Bluetooth and WLAN capabilities, and large screens highlight the feature list. Gradually, Palm has begun to join that competition, recently adopting the larger screen and experimenting with new form factors. As the competition between these two heats up, prices will come down as more and better features are built in.

Which means, inevitably, that one day, not far away, a full featured PDA will arrive on the market featuring a true three dimensional display and optimized to gain the maximum benefit from that display. Right now, it is hard to grasp just what this will be like. The mind struggles with the idea of an address book being suspended in mid air a few inches above the screen of a handheld, let alone the entertainment possibilites, but that is exactly where we are going. In fact, I somewhat suspect that three dimensional handheld displays will be more common than similar displays for desktops.

With a handheld machine, the manufacturer handles all aspects of the machine. Home made PDAs are so rare as to be non existent as a market sector. Not so with desktop computers. Laptops will be handicapped, though not critically, by the need to run all the same software as a desktop with a similar user experience. Three dimensional laptops should be plentiful, but the level of optimization within software needed to fully take advantage of the benefits of a true three dimensional display will be more difficult to attain because of the need of desktops and laptops to run the same software. Until the three dimensional display has penetrated deeply into the desktop market, the handheld seems to me to be the most likely to take the most advantage of this new technical capability.

Who cares? You do. No, trust me, you do. I have implied it in the past, but now I will say it out right. The future of the gaming industry lies with portable platforms. This applies to both hardware and software. Gaming will never leave the desktop, nor will it cease to improve. Nor will gaming ever leave the console. Nothing we have now will be lost or downgraded, but I maintain that the handheld is the future. And as part of that future, gaming will push handhelds to true three dimensional displays fairly rapidly.

Name the genre of game, and it has been covered time and time again by developers for the desktop. World war one flight simulator with realistic combat and weather effects? Aisle two. Epic RPG with an incredible soundtrack, beautiful story line, and enough monsters to make the St. Louis zoo look miniscule? Aisles seven through twelve. Play god? Check. Save the world? Check. Run a fast-food chain? Build the pyramids? Conquer the Asian steppes? Eradicate terrorists? Yeah, been there, done that. There are a few niches yet to be filled, but they soon will be filled, and filled plentifully. The market will only become more crowded, and annual gaming awards more competitive.

Meanwhile, the realm of handheld gaming calls. This is a wide open space, waiting for exploitation. There are very, very few high selling handheld games. Other than titles for the Game Boy Advance, there are almost none. Certainly nothing in a position to challenge The Sims anytime soon.

But then, other than the GameBoy Advance, there is not all that much in the way of handheld gaming platforms. The typical cell phone is not a gaming machine. I have tried. It does not work that well. The same goes for the typical PDA. And the technical capabilities of the GameBoy Advance leave the graphics in GBA games hopelessly dated.

Then the N-Gage arrived. A mixture of Great Idea and Bad Engineering, with a healthy dose of Too Expensive. But a start. Next up will be the Tapwave Zodiac, a Palm OS based machine designed from the ground up for gaming. Titles and game quality are yet to be determined, but that only important fact is that we suddenly have two handheld platforms designed (however poorly) to be gaming machines,taking on the monopoly held by the GameBoy Advance. Sony is preparing to enter that market. I would not be at all surprised if companies like Palm, HP, and Microsoft are watching very closely how the various devices do, with the idea of floating a gaming device themselves someday. The market is wide open. The GBA is a dinosaur ripe for replacement. Competition has begun.

And three dimensions will come of that competition. I have no idea who will be the first to pull it off, or how many iterations it will go through before someone finally gets it right, but I have no doubt it will come. It will be necessary. It will be the easiest way for the handheld market to set itself apart form the the desktop crowd in gaming. No amount of wishful thinking will allow the experience provided by a GeForce FX 5900 Ultra driven 1600×1200 display to be replicated on the handheld. To make a splash of any significant size, and thus any significant profit, handheld gaming will have to become a different animal, a different experience all together.

Eventually, likely sooner than we all expect, three dimensional displays for desktops will arrive, along with drivers that take some advantage of them. But the total package of full system optimization and integration will not arrive for a long time, except on the handheld. And that level of optimization is exactly what will be demanded as handheld gaming comes into its own.

Prominent handheld gaming platforms will come first, and soon. Three dimensional displays will follow. And after that? Who knows… by then we might have Diablo 3.


Disclaimer: Salem?s Fire was written by Luke Blaize during 2002-2004, and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.

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