Qualcomm hopes to make game consoles obsolete

Technology advancement is a path, rather than a destination. Unfortunately, the road is long, rocky and has no speed limit. 

Qualcomm demonstrated that this week when they showcased console quality games on smartphone hardware. Now, they don’t have a PC or game console business to protect, but they are in possession of graphics technology acquired from AMD/ATI.

The company evidently plans to use the tech to “obsolete” current-gen handheld console initially, and traditional game consoles eventually.

The first step part of the plan is already happening, but the second obviously depends on TV and set top box makers. Let’s explore this.

Qualcomm’s Gaming Group

I recently visited Qualcomm’s Gaming Group, where I toured one of the coolest demo areas ever – with the decor appearing to be a mix of Star Trek and Men in Black. The company was showcasing a series of technologies that allows them to provide gaming experiences in line with current-gen HD and future 3D titles on smartphone hardware.  

The primary weakness which I observed wasn’t in the visual presentation of the games (as off the shelf game engines were being used), but rather, in the controller hardware. Indeed, I could quickly see the reason for the Qualcomm-based Xperia Phone offered by Sony Ericsson.

Screen-based controllers are currently quite troublesome. This limitation will undoubtedly focus more companies on advancing  touch screen technology so they are capable of acting as optimized controllers. Fortunately for Qualcomm, the firm already boasts a next-gen, transflective technology known as Mirasol which provides an improved control surface, is extremely glare resistant and sips relatively low amounts of power

One of the more interesting demonstrations was a peer-to-peer gaming capability using Bluetooth that would, upon release, be both secure and easy to configure. As such, two people with phones could play the same game – which is ideal for most head-to-head titles, whether they are handheld or console based.

Basically, the future Qualcomm currently envisions is one where your phone acts as a primary gaming device by scaling from a small to large screen as needed.

Alternative Path

Interestingly enough, hidden in the presentation was an alternative path that could potentially apply this technology to inexpensive set-top boxes – effectively turning the devices into gaming consoles. Remember, cell phone technology is relatively inexpensive and already used in SmartTVs and set top boxes today – so this isn’t a huge stretch. In essence, rather than buying a PlayStation or Xbox, you’d get gaming in the TV you bought and play your favorite title there.

Given that game consoles have a 5+ year cycle and that smartphone performance is running just a bit over 5 years (behind the PC), you can see the industry is close to an overlap point where the market might be encouraged to forego the next generation of consoles in favor of a low cost upgrade to a TV or set-top box.

As you may recall, Microsoft is already going down an ARM path with Windows 8, and since the Xbox is based on the Windows platform, I would expect Redmond to embrace such a move. In any case, Nintendo has been lagging on performance and needs a lower-cost, updated console – so both vendors may try to embrace this wave and ride it. 

At this stage, Sony only has the one ARM gaming-specific phone, and logically should be one of the first to consider such a scenerio. However, the corporation’s divisions don’t work well together, so I expect they are the most likely to try to fight this change.  

Don’t get me wrong, they all may try to fight this change, I’m just saying that two of the three vendors seem to be going down a more cooperative path already. 

Problems to be Solved

To make Qualcomm’s vision a reality there are three problems that need to be solved. The first, as mentioned above, is that smartphones generally suck as controllers, particularly for twitch games – and would need a a broader “fix” than one phone can provide.  

Second, if the phone is to be the gaming tool of choice it needs a way to reliably and wirelessly shift the display to a TV, as an archaic cables are too easily disconnected during sharp movements.

Third, while Qualcomm demonstrated some incredible software tools to migrate games to their platform, game designers will still have to do a lot of hard work. While they clearly are developing games for phones, porting games originally created for a console may not make the the list of things they want to do.

Wrapping Up: The Smartphone is a PC

One of the changed realities we face this decade is the slow realization that tablets and smartphones are PCs. Step by step, they are moving into areas where PCs and PC derivatives like gaming consoles and media centers used to be.  

To be sure, we are in the midst of a change not unlike the PC revolution, and the dominate players who emerge at the end of it all will likely be different than those who ruled the PC market. This is the outcome Qualcomm is clearly working to create, as they strive to leave their competitors behind in a technological graveyard.