Graphics to Go
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 4 (April 2003)

Graphics to Go

By Jenny Donelan

The use of 3D graphics on mobile phones is still more cutting edge than commonplace—at least in the United States and Europe—but a variety of players are hard at work to change that situation. Wireless graphics were a hot topic at the 2003 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Jose this spring, with handset manufacturers, IP providers, and game developers all making numerous wireless-related announcements prior to and at the conference. The diversity of this group reflects the diversity of the wireless graphics market itself. As Computer Graphics World reported last fall ("Pocket Pictures," pg. 30, October 2002), phone manufacturers, service providers, software developers, and many others must cooperate before 3D imagery can become widely available to users of mobile phones and other portable devices.

The existence of so many disparate parties has in fact been a major stumbling block toward adoption of this technology. "It's so complicated to bring 3D graphics into focus in new markets," says Seth Reames, marketing team manager for HI Corp.'s Mascot Capsule Division, "because everybody has to work together and not everybody makes off with the same amount of business." In Japan, where HI Corp. is the developer of a proprietary 3D rendering engine, 3D graphics are already a fairly standard item. One reason for this, according to Reames, is that Japanese mobile phone companies were early adopters of data services that run alongside voice services, which are necessary for most 3D content.

A look at what's happening in Japan may provide insight on where wireless 3D is headed elsewhere. NTT DoCoMo subscribers can currently choose games based on HI Corp.'s 3D engine from online menus, and download and play them over the phone.

This bass fishing game is one of many entertainment options available to NTT DoCoMo subscribers. Image © HI Corp., VGD, RZ.

HI Corp.'s offerings (developed with partners and published by Bandai Networks), include car racing, fishing, and ski jumping games, as well as virtual pets—which are currently quite popular. Users choose from several varieties of dogs or cats and "raise" their pet for a period of six to eight weeks—feeding it, watching it grow, and teaching it tricks.

Virtual pets are among the most popular wireless programs based on HI Corp. technology. Your 3D dog can send you a picture from its visit to China (above) or await commands (below). Images © HI.Corp.

These pet simulations are a good example of the current state of 3D on most mobile devices—3D characters against 2D backgrounds. It's still primitive compared to console- or PC-based imagery, but "the 3D helps a lot," says Reames, "You have these flat wallpapers and the dog or cat is kind of moving around in the foreground. In 2D it would seem more like a cartoon, but 3D graphics makes it more real."

The immediate future of wireless Webcasting, according to face2face, involves talking heads rather than full-bodied characters. Image courtesy face2face.

HI Corp.'s Mascot Capsule Engine renders 3D content for wireless. The software engine is embedded into more than 10 million handsets in Japan, and can also be downloaded. HI Corp. also provides plug-ins that work with major modeling and animation tools such as Softimage, Alia|Wavefront's Maya, NewTek's LightWave, and Discreet's 3ds max. Artists create content in their program of choice, then use the plug-in to export to wireless format. A soon-to-be-released version of the engine will enable full 3D scenes.

As was evident at GDC, wireless development outside Japan is moving along as well. "It's a very exciting time for mobile games and mobile animation," says Eric Petajan, chief scientist with wireless content developer face2face. The company has developed a streaming animation player for wireless 3D and is currently in negotiations with partners, according to Petajan. "Before, there were not enough users and they didn't want 3D," he says. "Now we're staring to get into the sweet spot, in terms of timing. Bandwidth is just beginning to become available, and there are phones and PDAs right now that have the power."

The Buglord game was released for numerous platforms, including, shown here, the Sony Ericsson mobile phone. Image courtesy BigBrain Games and Bearded Toad Entertainment.

This spring, BigBrain Games and Bearded Toad Entertainment introduced a game in a distribution strategy that gave the nod to the wireless environment. According to the companies, their BugLord title is the first to be released simultaneously (or nearly so) for the Pocket PC, Windows, Palm Pilot, Mac OS X, GameBoy Advance, and Sony Ericsson phones. The imagery for this 2D/3D title, which its makers describe as "a strategy game of entomological combat," is scalable according to the platform it's designed for. The PC version has richer imagery, while the phone version is simpler.

So it may be a while before we'll see 3D bugs skipping through a 3D environment on our 2-inch phone screens. The biggest challenge, according to Petajan, is being able to deliver streaming audio and animation over each phone. "There are great differences in phones," he says. "It's not really write once and deploy everywhere." Reames cites a lack of standards as a related difficulty. There are initiatives in which HI Corp. participates, such as JSR 184, the 3D API for Java and OpenGL ES, a project backed by The Khronos Group. But still, says Reames, "our strategy has been to forge ahead despite the fact that's there no standard for 3D over mobile,." and, he adds, despite the fact that a mobile phone screen is not a vehicle tailor-made for rich imagery. "We're trying to make things move in 3D, in a limited environment—that's the challenge."

Jenny Donelan is managing editor for Computer Graphics World.

Bearded Toad Entertainment
HI Corp.