OpenGL Comes Closer to Bringing 3D Games to Cell Phones

This week's Game Developers' Conference in San Francisco was mainly about the art of game design for consoles and PCs; but another very equally important development was going on there as well: The world's leading software designers (minus Microsoft) formally accepted and ratified a provision to the OpenGL graphics standard that will make it feasible for game designers to create shader components and game assets for handheld devices just as easily as they do for PlayStation 3.

Members of the Khronos Group formally ratified OpenGL ES 2.0 for embedded systems, which utilizes the same rendering principles as OpenGL for other platforms, though it's geared for communicating with new classes of handheld hardware that have frankly been ready to take rendering to a new level since 2004.

This week, both AMD (the new parent of ATI) and nVidia demonstrated advanced programming toolkits for new shader models; but while nVidia concentrated on DirectX 10 rendering for Windows (and how elements of it will be compatible with Xbox 360), AMD turned its attention to the handheld world.

In so doing, some of AMD's people may actually be familiarizing themselves with ATI tools like RenderMonkey for the very first time - tools that help designers build assets for PS3 and other platforms, but using libraries that are the portable realm.

If you're wondering why gamers would be interested in seeing virtual worlds enacted on two-inch screens, realize that these days, video games are franchises. Like movies, they need to be repurposed for multiple platforms in order to ensure their viability; and in recent years, PC and console games have diverged into somewhat different genres. For game manufacturers, this makes it less likely that a franchise devised for one genre can be repurposed for the other; at best, only a subset of game concepts translate to both the keyboard/mouse user and the two-thumbed joystick user.

But with virtual worlds becoming the raison d'etre to invest in PC games or in consoles like the PS3 -- whose PlayStation Home online environment was unveiled just this week -- manufacturers see an opportunity for games to reach their players wherever they are. Their cell phones could become their communicators for the digital realm.

They may not be the complete games that get ported to cell phone platforms - for now, they lack the memory and storage - but tools that keep multiplayer game participants actively enrolled should perhaps contain some semblances of their PC- or console-based counterparts. This is why AMD is pushing its development tools, such as RenderMonkey, for OpenGL ES: The more that developers become interested in the possibility of gaming with full-time connectivity, and the tools that make this possible, the sooner that game artists will build a software base that makes use of Imageon processors for handheld devices. Remember, it's AMD - not ATI - that's in the Imageon business now.

In a statement earlier this week, AMD said it's also working to develop emulation environments so that artists can see their works rendered in PC environments the way they'll appear on a handheld scale.

The possibility also exists for the software and hardware manufacturers involved in the Khronos Group -- which include Sony -- to coalesce toward the building and promotion of a portable gaming platform that could eventually either incorporate or succeed the current PlayStation Portable, a device which many analysts see as entering the twilight of its market life.

The new version of the royalty-free OpenGL ES implements what's being called a common platform interface layer, which presents a necessary abstraction between graphics shader programming and the underlying rendering hardware. In so doing, version 2.0 actually removes some of the so-called "fixed functionality," including software-based rendering routines, trusting vendors instead to provide those routines in their own hardware.

This way, AMD, nVidia, perhaps Sony, and perhaps others could conceivably compete with one another to provide comparable or superior functionality -- the way some of these companies already do with PC hardware -- without compromising or subdividing the underlying software platform. Imagine a game that runs on a Sony portable that could also run on a Nintendo portable.

Many talk about the advantages of building open platforms. Here's a chance to actually do it.

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