In the days of old—15 or so years ago—you had to have high-powered, specialty hardware and software to run 3D graphics. Nowadays, 3D graphics on ordinary desktop machines are a matter of course, and even laptops can run high-end modeling and animation programs. Game consoles have proceeded apace and are known for their ability to handle rich 3D imagery. What now? Embedded devices, say most people in the industry—gadgets such as personal digital assistants and mobile phones—are the next frontier.
The first question that comes to some folks' minds is: Why? Of what possible use would 3D imagery be on those tiny screens, especially with mobile phones growing more diminutive with each product cycle? You wouldn't want to, for example, apply walk cycles to a digital character or composite a movie scene on a phone, even if you could. It turns out, however, that quite a few uses exist for 3D on communications devices, uses at once more and less ambitious than the sorts of applications we're accustomed to associating with 3D.
Gaming is the first and probably the most obvious wireless 3D application. Since people are already accustomed to playing games on their portable phones, it stands to reason that an interest in games with prettier and richer graphics would exist. Even if you don't yet know that you want 3D games, you will, according to Paul Beardow, CTO of Superscape, which develops software for the 3D wireless market. "The emergence of 3D [for mobile phones] is a situation very similar to that of game consoles—once end users have seen 3D, they no longer want 2D games," he says.
Wireless 3D graphics are also being developed to enable message delivery via animated characters. Think Darth Vader mouthing your instructions to come home immediately on the screen of your daughter's mobile phone. Users' desire for such technology would seem less of a sure thing, but companies such as 3dMe, which is developing a series of characters that not only deliver words, but do so in a mood appropriate to the message, are banking on a sizeable market for just such applications. In Japan, the land of the bleeding edge when it comes to wireless graphics, these kinds of characters are already popular, especially among teenagers.
Other potential uses for 3D on phones include avatars or virtual spokespeople who deliver news, horoscopes, and financial information, and e-commerce applications that would allow users to examine objects at all angles before purchasing them.
And there are endeavors that aim to increase the physical functionality of the embedded devices themselves. Last spring, for example, start-up company Canesta announced the concept of the "projection keyboard" for wireless devices. Canesta's 3D image-sensing and image-projection chips, incorporated into a cell phone or PDA, would make it possible for users to type onto a projected full-size keyboard while their finger movements are tracked in three dimensions, and the keystroke information relayed back to the device.
The very nature of wireless 3D graphics as a technology means that a vast assortment of industry players must be involved in order to make it all work. At the widest level are entities like NTT DoCoMo, the mobile arm of Japan's leading telecommunications company, which has established a branch headquarters in the US and has been working with AT&T Wireless to invest in and support a number of wireless and mobile multimedia products and initiatives. Then there are the phone manufacturers—Ericsson, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, NEC, Nokia, Sharp, and so forth. In order to make 3D graphics viable, the phones themselves must be capable of handling the technology. In most cases, this means a new generation of handsets (with color displays, of course) that will initially cost more than the average mobile phone does today. (Phone companies obviously have an interest in 3D content that is exciting enough to compel customers to upgrade their mobile units.)
And then there are issues of platforms and standards. Texas Instruments develops chips that help power mobile phones (in conjunction with the processors from the ARM company, which power most mobile phones) and has also developed OMAP (not an acronym), an applications programming architecture for wireless graphics. Qualcomm, a wireless technology developer, has been offering and promoting BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless), its common platform for different types of wireless devices and applications. Various hardware and software companies are already developing on and for these platforms. And last, there is a sizable collection of compression algorithms, communications standards, and streaming techniques that must be factored into any scheme in which 3D graphics must be made to fit onto a screen no more than two inches high.
With so many players and technologies to fit together, the future of 3D on your mobile phone might seem a distant one. Not so, according to most companies. "Japan is where it's happening first," says Paul Burlingame, senior product manager for Qualcomm Internet Services. "Right now, there are [3D] m-commerce [mobile commerce] applications in that country." Japanese mobile phone users are also enjoying 3D wallpaper, screensavers, messengers, and games on their phones. Europe is close behind. And in fact, adds Burlingame, "Most people would be surprised with what you can do now with an ARM 7-based phone [current technology] and a color screen." Still, most vendors are predicting that it will be the end of next year before the bulk of 3D wireless phones and applications will be widely available in this country.
In the meantime, applications developers aren't sitting idle. Startup 3dMe's Messenger converts text-based messages into expressive spoken animation using text-to-speech and automatic lip synchronization, and 3dMe's Emote wireless animation platform delivers expressive characters by extracting moods from text messages and sending the results to a color mobile phone. Another company, FunMail, already offers 2D animation as accompaniment for wireless messaging. And the Tokyo-based HI Corp. has introduced its Mascot Capsule Engine software, which allows for the conversion of characters created in Softimage, Discreet's 3ds max, NewTek's LightWave, and others to desktop applications, hardware-native applications in C++, Web programs, and embedded devices.
Earlier this year, software infrastructure provider and facial animation software developer Eyematic (developer of FaceStation) introduced its wireless Synthetic Video technology. Eyematic has been working with several partners, including Texas Instruments and Qualcomm, to create applications based on the Synthetic Video technology (see image above left and on previous pages).
Although mobile phones are only one platform, albeit a particularly challenging one, for 3D graphics applications, development for these devices appears to be at the forefront of many vendors' minds. Desktop applications and portable gaming devices are all part of the mix, of course, but the ubiquitousness of phones makes them particularly desirable in terms of market share. After all, says Burlingame of Qualcomm, when you're headed out the door, "a portable game player is optional, but a phone, you're gonna take."
Jenny Donelan is managing editor of Computer Graphics World.
Eyematic's MyGenie, developed in Qualcomm's BREW environment for wireless, delivers graphical daily horoscopes over Verizon's Wireless BREW Service. MyGenie is an example of the kind of application developers see as viable for mobile phones.
Eyematic's Spaceluge is a real-time 3D game that can be played on mobile devices.
Eyematic has developed a range of 3D characters who deliver information in TV newscaster-style format without requiring heavy-duty bandwidth.
The face2face Animation Player enables animators to output streaming facial characters over wireless networks and devices, including laptops, digital cell phones, and wireless PDAs. The MPEG-4 compliant technology can plug into or be embedded in a variety of rich media players and enables 30-frames-per-second animation over wireless networks.
Eyematic technology lets cell phone users create Anime-style characters for messaging, one of several applications Eyematic is developing with Texas Instruments, whose OMAP processors power many of the new color mobile devices
HI Corp. www.hicorp.co.jp
Texas Instruments www.ti.com