Games and Graphics Unplugged
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 5 (May 2009)

Games and Graphics Unplugged

Innovative devices place high-end graphics in the palm of your hand.


Cutting-edge graphics technology is showing up everywhere these days. Once confined to desktop workstations, high-end graphics have moved from mobile workstations to notebooks, and is now filtering into highly portable devices such as cell phones, PDAs, and mobile gaming devices.

The Blackberry Storm has far more graphics capabilities than the original version.

Over the years, the functions of these handheld devices have been seeing a convergence toward more and more powerful units, such as the iPhone, that can do everything from making a phone call, to surfing the Internet, to watching video and playing high-quality games. Indeed, these handheld mobile devices can place cutting-edge graphics in a person’s pocket and are redefining how people work, play, and communicate.

The first devices that made graphics truly portable were handheld gaming consoles. Nintendo’s GameBoy was introduced approximately 20 years ago, and subsequent generations have added more and more graphics power. Current-generation handheld gaming devices, such as Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s DS and the just-released DSi, have reasonably high-end graphics in a small package. The PSP can even play video, while the DSi offers interactive features, including a camera and audio player functions. One of the more compelling features of the DSi is not graphics related, but network related, in that it offers the ability to download games off the Internet.

While the DSi is extremely new to the scene, in contrast, both the DS and the PSP were introduced in 2004, making the graphics technology in those devices approximately five years old. While still very fast and interactive, the graphics in these handheld consoles are actually a generation or two behind the current state of the art.

The real hotbed of activity in mobile graphics is happening in the mobile phone arena. These days, mobile phones do a lot more than make calls; they’ve become miniature digital workstations that take pictures, show maps, provide directions, surf the Internet, play games, and display video. A lot of this new functionality is driven by faster mobile data connections. The introduction of 3G Internet connectivity by most of the major carriers allows for faster downloads, which, in turn, allows for richer content. 

Look Who’s Calling

Probably the most conspicuous of these new mobile graphics devices is Apple’s iPhone, which is about as graphics driven as a mobile phone can get. Nearly every function in the phone is controlled by a touch-sensitive graphics display. The innovative and intuitive graphical interface of the iPhone has catapulted Apple into the forefront of the mobile phone and mobile graphics market. 

The iPhone surfs the Internet and can read a great deal of multimedia-based content, such as videos on YouTube or through the Apple store. Apple’s iPhone App store is bursting with graphics-based applications, from mapping software to graphics-driven games. These games are quickly becoming more and more sophisticated, and most major game developers, including Electronic Arts, Sega, and Vivendi, are already producing titles specifically for the iPhone. Furthermore, a new high-powered start-up called Ngmoco is devoting itself specifically to iPhone-based gaming. In fact, many developers claim that the iPhone has as much or more graphics gaming power as dedicated gaming devices. 

While the iPhone certainly has made its mark, Apple is not the only company putting far more graphics power into handheld devices. Research In Motion’s Blackberry has become the standard smartphone for business, and while it doesn’t really shine when it comes to gaming, competition from the iPhone has pushed the company to expand the device’s graphics capabilities. The fairly new Blackberry Storm now has a large touch screen in place of the keypad and a lot more graphics capability, including mapping and video playback. As with the iPhone, the trend is toward more powerful graphics with each new generation.

When Apple rolled out the iPhone, it took a big bite out of the mobile market with its graphics innovations.

Microsoft is not left out in this field, either. The company’s Windows Mobile 6.1 operating system has been updated to add a lot of graphical features, such as touch-screen support, video, and better Web browsing. A number of innovative phones use this OS as the basis of some very capable and very diverse smartphones. Some of these are entirely touch-screen driven, like the iPhone; some have keyboards, like the Blackberry; and some sport both.  

The new player on the block is Google, with its Android phones poised to be the next big entrant in this space. Android is an open-standard operating system that can run Java-based applications for mobile devices. This makes it much easier for third-party developers to create innovative graphics applications—which cannot be done for the iPhone or the Blackberry.

The open standard, supported by the Open Handset Alliance, also makes it easier for phone manufacturers and mobile carriers to innovate with new and interesting types of devices. T-Mobile is the first out of the gate with the G1, which has been well received. The phone supports GPS and many of Google’s graphics-intensive applications, such as Google Maps and YouTube. T-Mobile will not be the last; Sprint has announced an Android phone, and many manufacturers, such as Motorola, are also developing  handsets.

Like Apple, Google is openly courting developers for its Android system. Google has already set up an application store for the flurry of applications it expects from developers. One thing that makes Android especially developer friendly is that it is based on open-source software, so licensing requirements are less strict than with other platforms. As a result, we can expect to see a lot of innovative graphics for these devices.

Chips and More

While the new devices and operating systems are the most visible part of this revolution, the real magic behind these devices are the chips and technology that make them work. Graphics, for the most part, eat up power, and chips for mobile devices require low power consumption. Video is certainly another graphics-intensive task for mobile devices.

Nvidia’s Tegra chips address the needs of mobile graphics.

Addressing these competing demands requires some clever engineering and design. And the growing demand for a solution has brought a number of familiar players into the market. One of the more familiar makers of chips for these devices is Nvidia, which is well known for its graphics cards used in high-end workstations and gaming machines. Nvidia’s Tegra series of chips are designed to address the needs of mobile graphics. The newest chips, such as the Tegra 600, are true computers-on-a-chip in a very small and highly mobile package. With advanced multimedia functionality and a low-power design, the Tegra 600 Series will power the next generation of visual computing on Microsoft Windows Mobile and CE-based mobile Internet devices.

Of course, wherever you find Nvidia, you will also find AMD, and its Imageon processor line is designed as a GPU for mobile devices. The current generation of chips actually borrows technology from Microsoft’s Xbox, giving it a high degree of graphics power, particularly for gaming.  Imageon supports both 3D and 2D graphics, audio processing, still and video cameras, TV out, video recording with image stabilization, video transcoding, and various other multimedia features. All this is done in hardware, making it a much more dedicated and flexible computing platform than the generic processors used on desktop workstations. By keeping everything on a single chip, power consumption is reduced for the mobile device, which extends battery life. 

Imagination may be lesser known than AMD or Nvidia, but its chips live in the best known of these devices—Apple’s iPhone. The second-generation iPhone 3G has a lot of graphics power, thanks to its Imagination Technologies’ PowerVR MBX 3D graphics video core. A new, extended license with Imagination would give Apple broad, exclusive access the company’s next-generation PowerVR SGX/VXD cores. The SGX core provides OpenGL ES 2.0 functionality and the Universal Scalable Shader Engine for hardware-accelerated, shader-based 3D graphics. The VXD core plays HD video with power consumption comparable to the existing audio playback chips.

AMD’s Imageon is touted as a GPU for mobile devices.

Decoding video, particularly HD content, requires a lot of processing power, and while many of the current smartphones don’t support HD, the capability is already being built into the chips slated for future devices.

Having such powerful graphics in the palm of your hand is revolutionizing the way people work, play, and communicate. As the technology matures, these devices will demand better and even more innovative graphics applications. The future shows a lot of promise for these tiny power­houses.

George Maestri is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World and president/CEO of RubberBug animation studio. He can be reached at