You Got Game

Feb. 17, 2005
Tap into the design secrets behind the next generation of gaming systems.

Remember Pong? One of the first—and simplest—video games, Pong opened the door to a fascinating new frontier in gaming. Of course, it's now a dinosaur compared to games played on some of today's popular consoles, like Sony's PlayStation 2, Microsoft's X-Box, and Nintendo's GameCube. They use multihundred-megahertz 32- or 64-bit microprocessors with high-performance graphics engines and DVD/CD-ROM-based software to deliver realistic experiences that send Pong's little paddles into mothballs.

With CPUs running at several gigahertz plus a high-performance video card or two, PC gaming is now just as lifelike as its console-based competition. Throw in a large-screen display, surroundsound, force-feedback peripherals, motion-capture cameras, and multiplayer capability over the Internet, and PC gamers can virtually disappear into other worlds.

And let's not forget those pocket-sized systems. Nintendo has ruled the roost with its historic Game Boy line. In fact, its new DS system incorporates wireless and touchscreen technology to add communication functions to the experience. But Sony won't be far behind with its PlayStation Portable (PSP), due for release in the U.S. on March 18. And upstarts like Gizmondo Europe Ltd. will look to use the latest technology to take handhelds beyond simple gaming. Portable gaming is getting so popular, and the technology is advancing so rapidly, cell-phone makers are getting into the act, too.

CURRENT CONSOLES When it first appeared in 1996, the Nintendo 64 console took a technological leap to a MIPS R4300 64-bit microprocessor running at about 93 MHz. A custom coprocessor chip that handled the graphics and audio could deliver 2 million colors, 150k polygons/s, and 64 channels of audio. System memory consisted of 4 Mbytes of Rambus RDRAM-based storage, expandable to 8 Mbytes.

Just four years later, the Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2) thrilled the gaming community with almost cinematic graphics based on a 128-bit custom processor called the Emotion Engine. This engine runs at 300 MHz and performs 6.2 GFLOPS. System memory consists of 32 Mbytes of RDRAM.

The companion graphics synthesizer chip runs at 150 MHz, uses 4 Mbytes of dedicated video RAM, delivers 16 million colors (24-bit color), and performs rendering at 75 million polygons/s. The internal geometry engine performs antialiasing, Bezier surfacing, Gouraud shading, Mip mapping, perspective correction, and z-buffering. Providing 48 channels, the audio subsystem can run with sample rates of 44.1 or 48 kHz.

The Sony system was one of the first consoles to include a DVD/CD optical drive, enabling use of CD-ROM/DVD disks as the game delivery system. The 4.7-Gbyte DVD disks provide plenty of storage for the high-resolution graphics. The proprietary operating system supports the original PlayStation optical media as well as standard video DVDs and audio CDs, enabling the console to double as a DVD player or an audio CD player.

With its optional remote control, users can operate the PS2 like a piece of A/V equipment. The console also supports two USB ports, an iLink port (Sony's name for FireWire/IEEE1394), two memory-card slots, and an expansion bay that can hold an Ethernet interface or other peripheral. Since its initial introduction, Sony has released a slimmer, smaller version that measures 12 by 3.125 by 7.24 in. and weighs just under 5 lb (Fig. 1).

Nintendo countered the PS2 with the GameCube in 2001. Based on a customized PowerPC CPU dubbed "Gekko" and a graphics engine developed jointly with ATI Technologies, the system delivers 1125 Dhrystone MIPS when the CPU clocks at 485 MHz. The graphics chip delivers 6 million to 12 million polygons/s (fully textured, fully lit, etc.), and the audio subsystem handles 64 simultaneous channels. The GameCube also utilizes an optical disk drive to load games. While the PS2 uses full-size disks, the GameCube employs a 3-in. drive and media that limits disk capacity to 1.5 Gbytes.

Another 2001 arrival, Microsoft's X-Box, turned a few heads (Fig. 2). First, it's the only console based on the Intel Pentium architecture (a Pentium III). Plus, it operates at a 733-MHz internal clock speed. This gives the system the highest internal data-bus transfer speed, 6.4 Gbytes/s, which is at least twice as fast as the other game systems.

A custom Nvidia graphics chip running at 250 MHz powers the graphics subsystem. The chip can produce images at speeds of up to 125 million polygons/s and support high-resolution images of up to 1920 by 1080 pixels. The accompanying audio subsystem contains a custom audio processor that supports 256 channels and Dolby AC3 encoding.

Along with a 5× DVD drive for game loading and video playback, initial versions included an 8-Gbyte hard drive to improve startup time. Microsoft has since removed that drive to lower system costs. A unified 64-Mbyte memory subsystem supports both the CPU and graphics subsystem. Though optional on the PS2, the X-Box includes a 10/100-Mbit Ethernet port and media communications processor so the system can connect to the Internet and play online games.

Nearly three years have gone by since the release of the last major game console. Yet the rumor mills are working overtime as each company—Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony—divulges some details of its efforts in developing next-generation game platforms.

Sony inked a deal with Nvidia late last year to develop a new graphics processor based on the GeForce architecture for its next-generation computer entertainment system. The system also will be based on a new central computing engine called the Cell processor, under joint development by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM Corp. First details of the Cell processor were unveiled earlier this month at the IEEE International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.

TURNING THE TABLES In a flip-flop of sorts, Microsoft recruited ATI Technologies to come up with the graphics processor for its next-generation X-Box. (ATI supplied the graphics for the PS2, while Nvidia provided the graphics for the original X-Box.) Also, it looks like IBM will supply the processors for the next-generation X-Box. But the big question is whether Microsoft will leverage IBM's technology for the Cell processor, or the CPU or CPUs will take more standard approaches.

Smaller companies also are trying to "get into the game" and make an impact. XaviX Technology, a scheme developed by SSD, uses a two-part system architecture: the XaviXPort console frame and the XaviX cartridge. The XaviXPort, which connects to the TV system through an A/V cable, contains the power supply and basic control interfaces. The XaviX cartridge houses the dedicated game functions, and it is inserted into the XaviXPort to play (Fig. 3).

Games include baseball, bowling, golf, tennis, and fishing. Separate game accessories like electronic bowling balls, bats and baseballs, and fishing rods tie into the cartridge via a wireless interface. At the heart of the XaviX system is a custom multiprocessor chip deployed in each game cartridge. Thus, the XaviXPort never has to be upgraded—the game itself is the upgrade.

Dedicated game peripherals, available for either game consoles or PCs from QMotions, replace keyboards and game controllers and let players use real sports equipment for actual full-motion player participation. The Batter-up game combines sensors to replace the keyboard/joystick activation of the swing along with adjustable sleeves packed with additional sensors that can easily accommodate standard wood, metal, or plastic bats. Foot-controlled buttons enable the batter to control head-first or feet-first slides.

FLEXIBILITY IS THE GOAL The PC has long been a platform for electronic gaming. But in the last few years, the graphics performance has incrementally increased as AGP transitioned from 1× to 8×, and now again to PCI Express. With CPU speeds exceeding 3 GHz, the basic CPU platform packs plenty of compute power. Audio subsystems with 5.1 and 7.1 channels of quality audio provide theater-like sound to surround the most avid gamer.

Graphics cards are the most visible upgrade that turns a basic desktop system into a gamer's dream. Now, graphics engines from companies such as ATI, Nvidia, S3, and others go onto cards that deliver the same graphics as previously ran on graphics computers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The top-of-the-line cards usually come packed with 256 Mbytes of dedicated graphics memory, either double-data-rate or Graphics DRAM memories, to maximize the data transfer bandwidth between the graphics processor and memory.

If this performance isn't enough, leave it to companies like Voodoo Computers Inc. to offer overclocked hardware with liquid cooling and dual, linked video cards based on the Nvidia SLI technology. The RAGE f.5 system delivers extreme performance in an attractive package (Fig. 4).

The SLI technology links two graphics cards and load-balances the graphics operations. The two graphics cards will nominally divide the screen into two parts: One card handles the upper portion and the other the lower portion. Depending on screen activity, one card may have to handle more of the screen while the other tackles more complex operations on a smaller portion of the screen.

In addition to graphics enhancements, still other companies like Logitech and Immersion Corp. offer peripherals that add vibration and force-feedback in mice, steering wheels for racing games, and other peripherals. Sound systems are also improving. Commercial PCs typically offer just stereo sound and may use software algorithms to simulate surroundsound and location-based sound for better realism. However, game-optimized PCs add either 5.1- or 7.1-channel sound systems to provide better quality positional sound as well as theater-like audio playback.

Of course, a small monitor can hamper the immersion experience. Today, 17-in. monitors provide a reasonable experience, and larger 19- and 21-in. CRTs are affordable as well. Now, consider playing the games on a 42- to 60-in. flat-screen monitor. While they're not a mass-market option, such monitors create a panoramic view of the game action. Coupled with force-feedback peripherals and surroundsound audio, they can make you feel like a character in the game.

GAMING ON THE GO Mobile electronics have been with us ever since batteries powered vacuum-tube-based radios. But interactive games didn't fully emerge until the 1980s, leveraging the technology developed for calculators and watches. Dedicated devices like chess-playing computers and handheld poker systems appeared first. Since then, developments like low-cost 32-bit processors and color LCDs have breathed new life into the market.

Nintendo's Game Boy has led to the Game Boy Advance and now the DS, which features a dual-screen system. Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP), already available in Japan, will be on the shelves in the U.S. on March 18. Hoping to top all of them is the Gizmondo handheld from Gizmondo Europe Ltd. Each of these systems provides top-notch graphics, audio, and multiplayer connectivity right in the palm of your hand. Though budget-priced, with costs ranging from $60 to $180, they pack a tremendous amount of technology.

The recently released DS combines dual 3-in. LCD screens with touchscreen technology. Its wireless interface and PictoChat software lets users draw and write messages and then send them to each other (Fig. 5). Each screen has a resolution of 256 by 192 pixels, and they can reproduce true 3D views with 3D renderings that surpass the images displayed by the Nintendo 64 game console, released in 1996. The upper screen uses a semi-transparent reflective TFT color LCD that can display 260k colors. The lower LCD panel includes a transparent analog touchscreen overlay.

Powered by a 32-bit ARM9 and a 32-bit ARM7, the DS uses the ARM9 to handle the game execution and graphics, while the ARM7 manages housekeeping and control inputs. A built-in microphone port lets users control the games via voice commands or chat with other players over the local wireless link—or over the Internet in the future.

With the ability to handle as many as 16 players, the wireless link features a range of 30 to 100 ft. Some games only require a single card for all players. Small stereo speakers built into the unit allow for virtual surroundsound, and a headphone jack provides privacy. Although many new games will be developed specifically for the DS, the system also can play Game Boy Advance games.

The original Game Boy and Game Boy Advance are based around a single 32-bit ARM7 CPU with 128 kbytes of embedded memory and 24 kbytes of off-chip RAM. Weighing about 6 oz, the systems use a reflective TFT color LCD with 240- by 160-pixel resolution. The screen can display up to 511 simultaneous colors in its character mode and up to 32,768 simultaneous colors in bit-map mode.

The soon-to-be-released Sony PSP weighs 260 g and measures 170 by 74 by 23 mm. This sleek system's 480- by 272-pixel high-resolution TFT LCD offers up to 16.77 million colors. The system also includes built-in stereo speakers and interfaces for a headphone, a Sony memory stick, USB 2.0 peripherals, and an 802.11b wireless local-area network. Based on a custom CPU with 4 Mbytes of embedded DRAM running at up to 333 MHz, the hardware includes 32 Mbytes of main memory, a 4.3-in. 16:9 widescreen TFT LCD, and a built-in lithium-ion rechargeable battery (Fig. 6).

A high-capacity 60-mm diameter optical disk, which Sony calls the "universal media disc" (UMD), can store up to 1.8 Gbytes of game software, movies, or other digital data. The disk is housed in a rugged package that slips into the built-in optical drive. A robust copyright protection system combines a unique disk ID, 128-bit AES encryption keys for the media, and individual IDs for each PSP hardware system.

The 138- by 82- by 32-mm Gizmondo system weighs in at a lighter 155 g (Fig. 7). It's about the same size as the PSP, but it offers a very different mix of features. Based around an ARM9 processor running at up to 400 MHz, it packs 64 Mbytes of SDRAM and flash memory, a 128-bit graphics engine from Nvidia, a 240- by 320-pixel color graphics backlighted TFT LCD panel, GPS capability, a 0.3-Mpixel digital camera, and other features. Although games must be written for this platform, the use of an ARM9 could let game developers rapidly modify games written for the ARM-based Game Boy to play on Gizmondo hardware.

At the heart of the display lies the GoForce 4500 3D wireless media processor from Nvidia. The chip gives handheld devices the ability to create rich, dynamic, lifelike worlds and characters with objects that behave according to complex physics, as well as characters that have personalities that are true-to-life. On top of delivering arcade-quality graphics, the GoForce 4500 includes support for MPEG-4 and H.263 codecs for VHS-quality recording and playback, as well as a camera interface and JPEG codec that can handle 3-Mpixel image sensors.

An SD-card reader, a USB 2.0 serial interface, and a Bluetooth wireless interface with a 10-m range provide storage for games and A/V files. Also available is a wired link to a PC, Mac, or other system, plus the ability to play wireless multiplayer games or transfer data over the Internet. Software included in the system handles MIDI.WAV formats, Windows Media Player 9, MPEG 4 video playback, MP3 playback, and polyphonic ring tones.

RING UP SOME GAMES Speaking of small packages, cell phones have become another platform, offering built-in and downloadable games. The latest cell phones and PDAs turn into effective platforms when equipped with a 3D graphics accelerator chip. ATI Technologies, NeoMagic Corp., Nvidia, Texas Instruments, Zoran, and a handful of other companies offer these chips.

The Nokia 7710 Smart Phone represents what can be done in a format optimized for entertainment. It packs a 65k-color, 640- by 320-pixel landscape LCD touchscreen, and it runs the Sybian Series 90 operating system. An integrated megapixel camera, voice recorder, video player, Internet browser, MP3 music player, FM receiver, and—oh yes—a GSM cell phone are just a few of its features.

Phones based on the highly integrated TI OMAP2 media processor, Freescale's i.MX21 combined with an Nvidia graphics accelerator, or Intel's PXA27x engine combined with the 2700G graphics support chip provide 2D and 3D graphics with drawing rates exceeding several million polygons/s. Such performance would rival the desktop computers of just a few years ago.

High-performance graphics solutions like the Nvidia GoForce 4500 are increasing in number. The MiMagic 6 from NeoMagic Corp., the Imageon 2300 from ATI Technologies Inc., the MMP series from Fujitsu, and Zoran's Approach 4C coprocessor are just a few examples of graphics accelerators targeted at handheld systems.

Companies also are working to enhance cell-phone gaming by adding stereo speakers for better audio. Yet sometimes, sound and visual effects simply aren't enough for action games. So, Immersion Corp. came up with the VibraTonz system, which controls the phone's vibrator motor speed. This speed can be adjusted to match the game's action—for example, adding the feel of acceleration to racing games. With a few hardware and software changes, future cell phones can readily incorporate the scheme.

Another company, Sonaptic, has developed audio algorithms that can run on the DSP/baseband processors in the cell phones, yet produce 3D positional sound (Fig. 8). This would let the tiny stereo speakers in the cell phone handset create realistic sound effects with objects appearing to move behind or above the player.

NEED MORE INFORMATION?ATI Technologies Inc.www.ati.comFreescale Semiconductorwww.freescale.comFujitsu Microelectronics Europe Ltd.www.gizmondo.comImmersion Corp.www.immersion.comIntel Corp.www.logitech.comNeoMagic Corp.www.neomagic.comNintendo Corp.www.nintendo.comNokia Corp.www.nvidia.comQMotions Inc.www.qmotions.comS3Graphics Inc.www.s3.comSonaptic Ltd.www.sonaptic.comSony Company Ltd.www.xavix.comTexas Instruments Inc.www.ti.comVoodoo Computers Inc.www.voodoopc.comZoran

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