Nvidia Project Shield

4/9/2013 9:18:34 AM

With 72 stream processors, PC game streaming via Steam and decent controls for Android games, Nvidia's new handheld console is a very curious device

The most surprising revelation from Nvidia at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was undoubtedly Project Shield. Unveiled by company founder Jen-Hsun Huang, Project Shield is a serious departure for the semiconductor company: a handheld console.

For a company that specializes in mobile processors and GPUs, there’s little else Huang could have whipped out on stage to greater surprise. Far from a concept product, Project Shield is heading for a retail release. To find out why, we cornered Nvidia’s Jason Paul, the man given the task of convincing the world the company hasn’t lost its marbles It’s based on Nvidia’s Tegra 4 system-on-chip; a pairing of four ARM Cortex-A15 cores with a single low-power companion core, plus 72 custom GPU stream processors. Meanwhile, the 5in flip-up touchscreen screen offers a 1,280 x 720 resolution.

The design of the console is centred on a desire to provides better control system for Android

’The soul of Project Shield started with two concepts,’ Paul explains. ’One was Tegra 4, and the other was ’let’s give Android gamers the ergonomics and controls that they’re used to from the more traditional console controllers”. So we really built the form factor of the device around the controller.’

That design methodology really shows: looking rather like a mutated Xbox controller with a smartphone screen bolted to the top, it’s certainly a departure from the likes of the Sony PlayStation Vita, or even the clamshell design of the Nintendo3DS. Squeezing everything required to build a fully functional games console into such a small space wasn’t easy, however.

’I don’t think I would be quite as able to express the pain and agony of cramming all this into a device as well as our engineering team! It was pretty challenging,’ Paul admits. ’To give you one anecdote, we got a lot of the device designed and laid out, and then realized we had these amazing speakers that were larger than the space we’d allocated in the device. So we had to go back and redesign a bit of the area around the speakers to cram in the bass-reflex, quad speaker audio.’

The controls are designed to be immediately familiar to console gamers

But what prompted Nvidia to look at the console market in the first place7 It’s a company far more at home selling components to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), despite some small experiments in direct retail marketing with selected GeForce graphics card models. ’Project Shield really started out with some gamers inside Nvidia who just wanted a better Android gaming experience,’ Paul recalls. ’I think they saw the potential of Android as a gaming platform, but wanted better controls. They wanted better audiovisuals and better battery life, so we saw an opportunity to build a dedicated device that brought about a premium Android gaming experience.

’We put together a collaboration between our GeForce and our Tegra engineering teams to build the device. That started around a year ago, with the initial conception of the device and the design, and it took us maybe nine or ten months to make our first functional prototype in November.’

Nvidia isn’t just targeting Android gamers either. 'Shield is a way to extend your PC gaming experience. You still have your core PC gaming experience, where you’re sitting in front of your PC and getting a rich, immersive experience, but with Shield you can extend that experience to any room in your house,’ enthuses Paul. 'You can sit on the couch or on your bed and enjoy a PC game.’

Based on Nvidia’s Tegra4chip, Project Shield aims to improve the Android gaming experience

That streaming capability, which allows almost any PC game to be played on the Shield via services such as Steam, owes much to another of Nvidia’s surprise projects: the GeForce Grid cloud gaming platform. 'The core streaming technology between what we’ll call PC game streaming and Grid cloud gaming is the same,’ says Paul. 'We’re using our GeForce GPUs and hardware built into them, an H.264encoderand software technology that processes very fast, low-latency game streaming. It’s fundamentally

the same technology. In the case of PC game streaming, the PC in your house is effectively your cloud server, instead of a remote Grid server in the cloud.’

Why now, however, other than having Shield serve as a handy demonstration of Tegra4’s capabilities7'I think there were a couple of other things that made this a great time,’ Paul explains.

'One was the pervasiveness of high-bandwidth Wi-Fi in homes; for our streaming technology to be able to bring the PC gaming experience to a mobile device, people need to have capable routers and home Wi-Fi. Also, the streaming technology we use is dependent on our current generation of Kepler GPUs.’ That’s one of the sticking points to the seemingly promising Project Shield: as the streaming technology relies on hardware and software technologies only available on Kepler-class GPUs, gamers will need a GeForce GTX 650 or better to take advantage of it - and those with AMD or Intel graphics need not apply at all. 'This will be a GeForce technology,’ Paul admits, 'and not something that we intend to, or are really easily able to, extend to other graphics hardware.’

For those who already have a Kepler-class GPU, however, Project Shield offers a novel twist on gaming, and with access to the thousands of Android games available, as well as PC games via streaming, it’s likely to generate considerable interest. Sadly, UK gamers will have to wait for it. 'We’re starting with North America, and we’ll then build internationally,’ Paul explains-without offering a firm time scale for a UK launch.

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