Wireless Systems Design

Wireless Makes A Play For Mobile Entertainment

Wireless cellular-handset games now appeal to adult consumers, handset vendors, and network carriers. But are they the next killer app?

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Wireless entertainment is becoming one of the bright market spots on today's technology front. Whether it takes the form of games, picture messaging, videos, or music, wirelessly enabled entertainment is generating interest among consumers, handset manufacturers, and wireless network carriers alike. To date, the most profitable and well-received form of wireless entertainment is gaming.

Before wireless gaming can become a commercial success, however, it must overcome many of the same hurdles faced by other wireless applications. For now, the primary obstacle is that it requires users to have access to Internet-enabled mobile wireless devices, such as laptops, PDAs, or cell phones. Of these various devices, the cellular handset may prove to be the best solution. After all, it is the most prolific, pervasive, and inexpensive of these devices.

The problems go beyond the handset, however. Wireless gaming technology also needs a network and an infrastructure that supports wireless content. The bulk of wireless gaming is now performed on cell phones that are connected to a 2G network. But many carriers are in the process of completing 2.5G network updates or a rollout of 3G network systems. Next-generation networks, like 2.5G and 3G, offer more bandwidth and feature sets for mobile entertainment.

Content is another important factor in the successful implementation of wireless entertainment. The content itself must be compelling. Otherwise, users simply won't want to pay extra for the products. Nor will they pay to access the service.

One of the hardest lessons learned from the recent telecom meltdown is that content matters. In the '90s, many device vendors and network carriers seemed to believe, "If we build it, consumers will come." The "it" in the case of wired systems was miles and miles of fiber-optic conduits. For the wireless world, it was 2.5G and 3G networks. But as many device vendors and network carriers soon discovered, without viable content, consumers simply weren't interested in paying for the latest and greatest technology.

As a result, the surviving device and infrastructure providers have taken to heart this message: "Content matters." Many have developed new features using their existing systems, including Short Message System (SMS) and games. SMS technology allows users to send brief text messages from one mobile device to another.

Two-way SMS is a more advanced version of that technology. It allows users to play real-time, text-based games against either the computer or other opponents on the same network. Many lower-tech wireless games are based on SMS. They allow players to exchange brief text notes by typing into their handsets.

Cellular networks that support SMS may also allow picture messaging, as long as the handset provides compatible graphics. Many people believe that handset-enabled picture messaging is a vital step toward the introduction of more advanced applications—especially video.

Not surprisingly, many network carriers are creating incrementally new features to test the interest of consumers. Examples include picture messaging and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). The latter is an improved version of SMS. Using 3G networks, it allows cellular users to exchange multimedia messages like graphical postcards, video clips, and business cards.

According to David Chamberlain, Research Director, Wireless Internet Services and Networks for Probe Research (www.proberesearch.com), picture messaging and MMS are perhaps the most well received of the technology options. After all, they represent an extension of the current use of mobile phones: communication with others by voice, text messages, and e-mail. David Chamberlain notes that picture messaging doesn't require that the user change his or her way of thinking about a phone as a communications device. As long as the interface is kept as user friendly as possible, picture messaging should gain popularity.

Despite the possible success of picture messaging and other options, however, gaming remains the industry's main focus. The enormous revenue potential for games played on mobile phones has already resulted in a wave of new product research and development. When it comes to gaming, mobile phones have many disadvantages when compared to wireless laptops and even PDAs. They have small screens, primitive graphics (if any), limited processing power, little memory, and limited battery life. As with all mobile devices, unstable network connections also pose a challenge.

Game developers and device manufacturers have stepped forward to attack these challenges. TTPCom (www.ttpcom.com), for example, has developed a Wireless Graphics Engine (WGE) that greatly increases a handset's graphic performance. This software-based solution eliminates the need for additional hardware. It therefore maintains cost and battery life, while ensuring a quick time-to-market release. TTPCom's graphics engine is compatible with Java or C++ games. It runs on a full range of cell phones—from entry-level models to the full-featured smart phone.

Game playing on handsets also requires support for one of the major development environments, like J2ME or BREW. Both of these platforms permit users to download new games over-the-air (OTA). Yet each language has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to wireless development. (For more information on this topic, see "Java Faces Competition From BREW And .NET," Wireless Systems Design, Nov. 2002, p. 13-14.)

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The choice of development environments also depends on the types of games being deployed. For single-player games, existing 2G networks are more than adequate. These downloadable games depend primarily upon handset capabilities—not the speed of the network. As multi-player wireless games grow in popularity, however, higher-bandwidth networks will become essential. These networks will call on J2ME-enabled handsets to provide true online gaming by connecting directly to Internet sites, notes Bob Pike, Executive VP of Global Business Development and Marketing at Mobileway (www.mobileway.com)—a company that specializes in managing and monetizing mobile transactions.

What is needed to develop a handset game? Experts at JAMDAT—a provider of wireless-entertainment applications—explain that if working alone, a developer would have to invest time and money to learn the intricacies of BREW and J2ME. Then, he or she would have to build the game, figure out how to modify it for use in multiple phones (considering different screen shapes, keyboards, etc.), certify the game, and finally negotiate distribution.

These challenging steps have led to the creation of wireless-game publishers like JAMDAT (FIG. 1). By working with them, developers can focus game development on either a J2ME or BREW platform. In addition to providing distribution channels, the publishers give developers the tools and proprietary technology that make it easier to design applications for the wireless medium.

Wireless games aren't just a visual experience, says John Kuner, Director of Online Development for Sega Mobile (www.sega.com/mobile)—a division of Sega.com. According to Kuner, carriers have developed non-standard ways to access phone features like ring tones and vibrations. Sega Mobile has even created a graphics-enhancement platform that provides speedy visual game play.

Yet game developers must rely on the wireless-network carriers and handset vendors to build user-friendly platforms. These platforms must provide reasonably stable network connectivity and user-friendly interfaces. The former demand may be the hardest one to ensure, as connection dropouts are bound to occur even with the most robust network. No carrier can guarantee a connection while traveling though a tunnel or mountainous terrain. Hopefully, clever game developers will think of a way to make such dropouts a part of their games.

HARDWARE CHALLENGES
Wireless-handset games may be a big revenue winner simply because of their appeal to adults. Unlike the immensely popular Nintendo Game Boy, which was clearly aimed at children, cell phones have a veneer of respectability—at least among adults. What better way for an adult to play the occasional game than on the cell phone?

Due to the handset design, however, the typical cell phone is not an optimal platform for games. From a hardware perspective, today's 2G handsets offer primitive displays, little processing power, small memory caches, and limited power. The headaches get worse when one realizes that wireless gaming is only one of the applications that must be provided by next-generation handsets. Many new handsets also will support Bluetooth and 802.11 functionality.

An extreme example of the "handset of tomorrow" might be Nokia's N-Gage, which just came out (FIG. 2). N-Gage is aimed squarely at the handheld gaming-console market. It is both a cell phone and a game platform. N-Gage boasts a 4096-color active-matrix display, an integrated camera (640 X 480), Bluetooth wireless technology, polyphonic ring tones, and Java support.

Modern game-capable handsets offer high-resolution color screens, fast processors, and sufficient memory to store several games, ringtones, and wallpaper all at the same time, notes Scott Orr, the founder and CEO of Sorrent (www.sorrent.com)—a creator and publisher of interactive wireless games.

Most adult handset users, however, want to stay within the confines and shape of a typical cell phone. This preference doesn't make the designer's job any easier, because it means adding increased performance to the same basic form. One way to accomplish this task and reduce the design life cycle is by employing a platform-based design approach. By architecting a design as an extensible and upgradeable platform, the handset company can spread the research-and-development costs over several product iterations, observes Keith Felton, Group Director of Enterprise Products for Cadence PCB Systems Division (www.cadence.com). Designers could then bring new versions and updates to market quickly and less expensively.

As both hardware and design processes move forward, chip sets also must evolve. They have to maintain a small form factor and low power consumption while adding increased functionality. For instance, chip sets must incorporate the Enhanced-911 (e-911) capabilities that are now required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in all new handsets. Qualcomm (www.qualcomm.com) is meeting this need by putting its gpsOne technology on the MS chip-set family. It can therefore enable a wide array of position-location services (FIG. 3). Interestingly, the e-911 mandate also is impacting wireless game development. Many developers are making use of this new technology in their games.

One example is It's Alive (www.itsalive.com). This Stockholm-based company has developed a new genre of games that utilizes mobile positioning. Its first offering, called BotFighters, uses location-based services to alert gamers to nearby players. Users can "shoot" other players by typing text messages into their cell phones.

Integrating applications into the handset is very much a collaborative effort, notes Jeff Wender of Strategic Alliances for Texas Instruments' OMAP Platform (www.ti.com). He observes that successfully developing these applications requires close relationships between handset manufacturers, chip vendors, software developers, and systems integrators (like TI's OMAP Center).

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LACK OF STANDARDS
One of the most frustrating problems faced in mobile game development is the lack of device and infrastructure standards. Current handsets may support a number of development platforms, such as Java, BREW, or even Microsoft's .Net. A problem therefore arises when carrier hardware systems and data formats differ from location to location. A multi-player wireless game that was written to support a PDC system in Japan, for example, may not work on a third-generation cellular network in Europe or Asia. It may not even work on a 2.5G CDMA network in the United States. Consequently, developers are forced to create several versions of the same title to run on each different handset platform.

These non-standardized global platforms make it difficult to achieve any "economies of scale." As Probe Research's David Chamberlain puts it, "The economies of scale come when you can make a single device for every market, every region, and every country."

Standards movements do exist, however. One example is the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), which works to develop mobile service standards (www.openmobilealliance.org). OMA is helping to create interoperable services that will work across countries, operators, and mobile terminals. This alliance doesn't compete with existing standards bodies. Rather, it works with them to focus on interoperability-of-service issues. Right now, the technologies that most interest OMA include MMS, Java, and WAP 2.0/HTML browsing.

Obviously, the list of issues and obstacles faced by wireless gaming is extensive. Yet no one believes that the challenges are insurmountable. Encouragement can be found in the success of current wireless games, which run on existing low-bandwidth 2G networks using relatively low-performance handsets. Carriers are already enjoying steady revenue streams from handset game subscribers. Near-term advances in both the networks and handsets will only increase the number of gamers, as well as related revenues.

The United States' wireless-entertainment market is relatively young. Current mobile games are at the same level as early computer games like "Pong." Wireless gaming will change quickly with the release of new handsets that support sophisticated games. It also will be fed by the rollouts of 2.5G and 3G networks, which are needed for multi-player bandwidths. If all of these factors are timed right, wireless games may indeed prove to be the next "killer app" that brings the telecom industry out of its fiscal doldrums.

TAGS: Mobile
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