Project Shield: A Potential Game-Changer

Nvidia's announcement yesterday that it would be releasing a new portable handheld, code-named Project Shield, immediately called to mind some of handheld gaming's less spectacular moments in history. There's the Gizmondo, with its lurid development history and costs that brought down the company. The Panasonic Jungle, designed to woo MMO players just as that bubble began to shrink, was quietly discontinued. Both of these projects, and others, serve as a grim warning for anyone attempting to enter this market.

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But Nvidia feels it has a few tricks up its sleeve to combat this fear of the new and unknown. If you missed yesterday's announcement, the proposition of Project Shield is three-fold in nature. First of all, it will provide gamers with an Android device that includes a physical controller within its clam-shell design. Secondly, it will allow streaming of Nvidia-powered PC games to the handheld, and from there to a television if desired. Finally, and to achieve all this, it packs in some seriously impressive hardware.

Before we get to any of that though, it's hard to ignore the grim cosmetics of the thing. It is not sexy, it is not svelte, and it's hard to imagine it sliding comfortably into anyone's jacket pocket. Whether the additional functionality of a physical controller can compensate for what is an ugly and cumbersome device or not, is something we'll only know for sure once we've got our hands on it.

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But underneath that grim exterior lies the technical magic. Project Shield is powered by Nvidia's Tegra 4 technology, a 72 core GeForce GPU and the first quad-core use of ARM's Cortex A-15. While the five-inch multitouch screen isn't as large as we might have liked, it will render at a 1280x720 resolution that should shine on the device's screen size. With the company anticipating annual revisions of the core technology, this is a device that could also rapidly outpace even Apple's incremental hardware releases.

The increasingly popular PC gaming space is already threatening the closed console systems that have traditionally dominated the living-room. Developer Valve will make its own move against the console Big Three later this year with the release of its TV-orientated PC, codenamed Piston. If you wish to use Project Shield instead then you'll need a PC powered by a Kepler-grade Nvidia GPU, but if the company can time this wave correctly then the ramifications could be enormous.

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But it's not just the traditional living-room console manufacturers who could feel the pinch from Nvidia. Apple's stranglehold over the mobile gaming market - forged from a closed marketplace that works against piracy, as well as providing a smaller number of hardware specifications - sits in opposition to the greater number of Android devices in use. But a device that can both end the restrictions of touchscreen controls and change the traditional console space at the same time might just encourage more developers to turn to the other side.

Pricing for Project Shield has yet to be announced but will likely prove crucial to the success or failure of the device. Whether or not they'd be prepared to admit it publicly, it's hard to imagine that the likes of Sony & Nintendo haven't internally acknowledged the damage caused to the traditional premium handheld market by the rise of tablet and mobile gaming. Any would-be suitor of the mobile audience would be wise to heed those concerns, particularly when offering gamers such a radically different proposition.

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Were Project Shield just another Android device with buttons attached, we'd no doubt have rolled our eyes at Nvidia's blatant disregard for past history by now, and moved on to more interesting topics. But this multi-pronged attack on the gaming establishment has the potential to chip away at many of the dominant players. Even if it doesn't change the world, Project Shield may make life just a little more complicated for the big names in gaming, and a lot more interesting for the rest of us.