By Simon Firth
A curved screen that seems to put you inside your favorite computer game. A mobile technology that maps a virtual game space onto real-world streets. A touch-screen coffee table around which you can gather with friends to socialize and play games.
HP is getting serious about gaming. The company has been a quiet leader in the gaming industry for some time: It is a leading supplier of workstations to game developers, a top provider of infrastructure services for online gaming, and the biggest seller of PCs to casual gamers.
"HP's broad technology portfolio enables us to contribute in nearly every segment of the gaming market," says Shane Robison, executive vice president and HP's chief strategy and technology officer. "Now what you’ll see from us is a focused strategy to be a more visible leader in this space."
HP signaled that intent last September when it acquired VoodooPC, the leading maker of high-performance and personalized gaming PCs. That gave the company an inside line on what hard-core gamers want when it comes to high-end gaming machines, notes founder and former CTO of VoodooPC, Rahul Sood. But HP also has a lot to offer the world of gaming in return, says Sood, now chief technology officer of HP’s Global Gaming Business Unit.
"Walking into HP Labs for the first time last year," Sood recalls, "was mind-blowing. I honestly had no idea that there was so much cool intellectual property in Labs, or in HP’s business units, that we could use."
As a world leader in imaging, multimedia, interface design, sensing, mobility, networking and media streaming, it turned out that HP Labs already had a host of research projects of direct relevance to -- and with a real potential to transform -- the future of digital games.
In collaboration with HP’s Global Gaming Unit, researchers have taken some of their most promising projects and turned them into gaming prototypes. Among these are:
- Panoply -- a high-resolution, curved display that fills your field of view using multiple, inexpensive projectors that can make the single-player game experience compellingly immersive.
Users calibrate the system with an automatic, camera-assisted process, which avoids the need for precise projector aiming.
Beyond gaming, Panoply could be used for remote collaboration, home theater or scientific visualization. It is being considered for use in HP’s Halo telepresence product.
- mscape -- a technology that allows multiple users to play a fantasy game in a real-world space on a variety of different mobile devices. Imagine a group of friends in a park -- mscape would let them overlay onto the park a virtual world where certain trees, perhaps, are mapped to hide treasure, a café becomes a castle, or fairies appear at predetermined points to reward players, change the rules or send everyone onto their next task.
- Misto -- put a high-resolution touch screen into a coffee table and what do you get? A realistic-looking digital aquarium, for one thing. But you can also play digital poker or backgammon with your friends. Or even your favorite old arcade game -- Pong anyone? Misto is a research project that explores the social dynamics and fun that result when multiple users get together to play games in the same place.
- Pluribus -- a popular trend in computer gaming is watching master players strut their stuff. Today it is possible to project digital soccer or football at a scale that makes people feel like they are at a real game. But very bright, very large digital projectors are expensive, and existing multi-projector systems require costly, time-consuming manual tweaking. Pluribus uses multiple basic digital projectors to quickly and automatically create a single large, high-resolution and super-bright image at a much lower cost than comparable systems. It is the only multi-projector system that automatically delivers vivid image quality, no matter how the projectors are configured.
All four technologies -- along with Voodoo PCs and the HP Touchsmart PC, a touch-screen PC with a wireless keyboard and mouse -- were recently showcased to reporters and analysts at the "HP Gaming Summit" in San Francisco.
"No one else is doing this work, and if they are successful, they could change the face of gaming and not only advance it by a decade or more, but forever change its course," IT industry analyst Rob Enderle wrote in his blog after the event.
"We've been working on these technologies for many years," notes Susie Wee, director of HP’s Mobile and Media Systems Lab. Researchers are excited about having a new outlet for their innovations.
"In the past, we were working in the consumer market, where people wanted the least expensive technology possible," Wee says. "VoodooPC customers are enthusiasts who really want the best experience and products they can get. And that allows us to put new technologies into products early on."
HP’s hope, adds Gaming CTO Sood, "is that by commercializing these innovations at the upper end, we can then bring them to HP customers downstream."
It’s not just gamers who can expect to benefit from technologies behind prototypes like the Panoply display and mscape mobile gaming. As HP Labs develops technologies for gaming, says Susie Wee, "we learn so much -- what works, what doesn’t, what needs to improve and so on. That same technology will feed back to our other product lines, too."
Beyond that, gaming and the technologies around it are just plain fun.
Well before HP got serious about gaming at a corporate level, there was an underground community who'd play games together at night.
When people started joining the new Gaming Unit and working with researchers, many found they were already playing online games together.
"They knew each other by their game names! Now they do it for their day jobs -- and so they get to couple their personal passions with their work," Wee says.
Many technologies that will see their way into new gaming products evolved from HP Labs projects that were initially focused on other areas. Now that gaming is an explicit HP focus, Sood says, customers can expect even more exciting innovations in gaming to emerge.
Sood promises more gaming announcements later in the year, including an entirely new gaming platform that he positioned between HP’s premium PCs and Voodoo’s entirely customized gaming machines.
"Get ready for the tornado," he says.