The Quest for 3D
By Steve Wallage, Wed Sep 04 00:00:00 GMT 2002

3D Mobile applications may initially be super screensavers but gaming is the key. If the standards are there, the 3D games and users will come.


3D mobile applications do not sound like something that will hit the streets for a long time. Yet, driven by the Asian markets, it is already a reality. The first handsets have been released with 3D graphics cards, and Japanese consumers have already sampled the first avatars, or 3D animated characters.

There has also been a raft of recent announcements as the 3D and graphics specialists, handset manufacturers and chipset companies endeavor to take a lead in this market. For example, 3D software developer Superscape is working with games company THQ to develop their portfolio as 3D mobile offerings. ARM, which claims to provide processor components to about 75% of the world's mobile devices, is working with Imagination Technology and Superscape, to provide 3D PlayStation-level graphics into mobile devices.

The aim of this joint venture is to overcome mobile challenges of memory requirement and file size. Mobile games developers are trialling 3D games and starting to showcase strong graphics and gaming capabilities on new handsets from the likes of Nokia and Siemens.

3D Applications


Do mobile users actually care about 3D? There is a surprisingly varied range of drivers that have been suggested for this market. These vary from the more obvious ideas, such as sprucing up screensavers, to developing location-based offerings with 3D maps and 3D representation of buildings and terrain. Although most developers are too polite to mention it, one can easily imagine that the sex industry could also think up a few ways of using 3D.

However, the real driver is likely to be mobile gaming. The mobile gaming market is still so immature that it is difficult to predict with any confidence whether users will want 3D in mobile games. Stuart Scott, MD of UK games developer Blue Sphere Games, believes that, "3D is not that vital." However, Mika Tammenkoski, CTO of Finnish games company Sumea Interactive, thinks that, "3D games will be desired by enthusiasts" and that "3D games will be far more innovative than the 2D ones".

Mike Grant, VP Marketing and Strategy at Superscape, suggests that, "3D animation will be the initial driver but that gaming will prove to be key", and that, "users will show a strong desire for the compelling experience of 3D". Certainly, if the applications are right then 3D could become a major element of gaming. It's the same argument as color versus black and white handsets - once a user has a color terminal they wouldn't change back. Equally, after using strong 3D applications, a user would not want to revert to 2D equivalents.

An interesting debate is the future delivery of 3D mobile games, whether they will be embedded or downloaded, and how such downloads could work. One view from Scott of Blue Sphere Games is that, "the embedded games market is dead" due to the lack of flexibility in embedded games and the amount of testing that needs to be done. The more likely outcome is that embedded games will become more of a hybrid, allowing additional features and levels to be downloaded.

The issue of downloaded games also leads to different opinions. Scott believes a maximum of 3-5 will be paid by users to 'pay and play'. He also sees a raft of other user options such as scratch cards and retail packages where the only additional cost is airtime. Eero Knuutila, VP Marketing of Sumea Interactive thinks that European users would much prefer to pay per download, with each download perhaps being active for a week. There is likely to be a wide variety of options, with most in the industry agreeing that the mobile games value chain will become far more complex.

This could lead to some occasions when the operator is bypassed by a new grouping of Mobile Games Service Providers (MGSP) such as InFusio. It will also be interesting to watch the approach of the major PC and console games companies as the mobile market becomes more attractive. Their branding and development skills makes them formidable competitors even if they need to acquire to gain the mobile expertise.

Standards


The single biggest obstacle to mobile 3D is not handsets, but standards. For mobile application developers, the lack of standards has been disastrous. Many games developers are still trying to work on a multitude of platforms which has often proved impossible to sustain. Knuutila says of standards, that he is, "not exactly happy with the ways things are currently."

At least theoretically, there is good news on this front. The Java Community Process (JCP) recently approved Java Specification Review JSR-184 (on August 11). This proposes a lightweight, interactive 3D graphics API, which sits alongside existing standards, J2ME and MIDP, as an optional package. The idea of the standard is to be all encompassing - simple enough to use to make rapid development of compelling 3D applications feasible and able to work on devices that have very little processing power and memory, and no hardware support for 3D graphics.

The specification is expected to be finalized during the fourth quarter of 2002, although in reality this is likely to be early 2003. Scott believes that the JCP "is doing all the right things."

There are reasons to be positive on the JCP work. It is working with other 3D developers such as Web3D. In a linked endeavor, Nokia and SGI are working on the development of a 3D standard suitable for embedded mobile terminals based on SGI's OpenGL 3D standard. This work is being carried out in conjunction with the Khronos Group. The JCP is also widely considered to be quicker and more efficient than other such bodies. Grant of Superscape believes that the "JCP takes months rather than years" and is far quicker than the likes of ETSI and the 3GPP. Sun has also worked hard to show that the JCP truly is an open forum for the development and approval of Java technical specifications.

The JCP is also working alongside the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) and The Mobile Games Interoperability Forum (MGIF). The latter is an industry forum founded by Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Siemens to define mobile games interoperability specifications and APIs for network-based servers. There are concerns that its work will still lead to some of the interoperability problems being experienced in MMS, although the public pronouncements of members are very strongly against any fragmentation of the market.

Not just Java


Although much of the standards initiative is coming from Java, it still faces significant threats from competing technologies such as BREW, .Net and proprietary APIs. In Japan, Qualcomm has already trialled 3D over BREW, and games companies such as Bandai are working on the technology. Microsoft cannot only bring its industry muscle to the market, but has the gaming expertise from XBox.

Java does enjoy very strong support, particularly for gaming. Grant of Superscape reckons that, "momentum behind Java is growing and unstoppable." However, there is an acceptance by others that the market will not be just Java, and penetration will vary by country and application. In many ways, a Java-dominated 3D market would be good for the industry as it provides the common platform for developers.

When and How?


Scott of Blue Sphere Games suggests that, "the evolution to 3D will take place in 2-3 years time as we see larger devices and some convergence with gaming consoles."

Grant of Superscape believes that 2003 will be a year of testing for 3D, and that 2004 will see the "bulk of users." Their partners, ARM, expect the first products to be embedded with 3D hardware to be commercially available in 2004 or 2005. Tammenkoski of Sumea Interactive argues that 2003 will see the launch of a number of 3D games.

The cost of devices supporting 3D will fall, and there will be an evolution to color and then to 3D graphics. If the standards issues are addressed, and compelling applications can be created, we should see the mobile 3D gaming and entertainment market, led by Japanese and Korean users, as significant in 2005.

Steve Wallage works and writes for the451. Steve has more than 13 years of experience as a technology analyst specializing in telecommunications.