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ARM tools up for killer phone app – 3D games

Graphics deal lays ground for Next Big Thing

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ARM announcements tend to vary on a scale from dull to impenetrable, and today's - detailing a 3D graphics collaboration between ARM, Imagination Technologies and Superscape, is no exception. We'd categorise it as understandable but not very exciting. But it just so happens that The Register spent some time with Mike Grant of Superscape and Steve Evans of ARM at GSM World the other month, so we're in a position to realise that this not very exciting release is in fact about the killer app for mobile phones.

It's games, of course. Sure, Superscape's Swerve 3D can be used to produce cuter, easier on the eye menu systems for the next generation of colour screen mobiles, but people aren't going to be sufficiently impressed by 3D buttons to pay extra money for them, and extra money is what the service providers are in desperate need of obtaining.

So it works like this. Superscape's Swerve 3D is an enabling software technology consisting of client, author and applications software, while Imagination produces the PowerVR MBX graphics core. These get integrated into an SoC ARM system, meaning you've got a complete 3D package that allows you to put "high performance modern 3D and video graphics" onto a phone handset.

Which of course means games. Speaking to Grant of Superscape The Register was amused to discover that he'd started out where we did on the Sinclair Spectrum, and nigh on 20 years later here we are again. As with Amiga, the 80s games crew are set to make a comeback in the mobile arena. Mobile phone technology now, with a decent sized colour screen and a couple of control buttons either side, allows you to produce an acceptable arcade quality game so long as you've got the graphics side properly together, which is what ARM is doing now.

And it is the killer app, so far. People producing apps for 2.5 and 3G handsets may have other suggestions, but you really only see the glint in their eyes, and their voices really only get confident, when they start on games. The model the service providers are most interested in, according to Grant, is coin-op rather than retail software, and you can understand that. If the market can be persuaded that the phone in the pocket is in fact a virtual arcade machine, then they'll stump up a dollar per play. That's better money than a $40/£40 outright software package sale, and is anyway in line with their services business model, whereas just selling a box and walking away is not.

Will it work? Kids spending more of their money on SMS has been blamed by at least one confectionary company for a downturn in sales, and if the games are good enough kids are perfectly capable of spending even more of their money on pocket coin-op. Unwatchful parents won't be best-pleased about this, and if it gets bad enough the phone companies will come in for a lot of unhelpful publicity, but it will go some way to bridging that 3G revenue gap.

One thing we - slightly puzzled - asked ARM's Steve Evans about this. If it is possible to put decent 3D, arcade quality graphics into a pocket device with limited battery capabilities, then was it not inevitable that the nVidias of this world with their on-card fans and heatsinks would be in dire trouble? He smiled, shook his head and said it was rather more likely that the ARMs of this world would end up doing deals with the nVidias of this world. ®

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