At a price of $350, Nvidia doesn’t expect to sell huge volumes of Nvidia Shield, its Android-based handheld gaming device due out in June. The company has a different goal with its first move into consumer electronics devices: It wants to show hardware makers and gamers what’s possible with its Tegra 4 processor.
“We wanted to have a reference device that shows Tegra 4 in the best light it can possibly be shown,” Bill Rehbock, Nvidia’s general manager of mobile games, said in an interview.
Shield looks like an oversized console game controller, but with a 5-inch touch screen that unfolds from the top. The device runs Android 4.2, and can hook up to a TV via HDMI for big-screen gaming. It also has a streaming feature–in beta at launch–that promises to let users play modern PC games over a local network connection.
I had a chance to speak with Rehbock and Richard Seis, Nvidia’s developer support manager, during Google I/O 2013, where Nvidia was showing off the nearly-finished version of Shield. Rehbock explained that Shield is a way to show off high-end Android games with real game controls, running on the company’s Tegra 4 processor.
Although Nvidia’s been doing mobile processors for a while, and the idea of using a physical controller for Android games isn’t new, Nvidia didn’t manage to turn heads with Tegra until it built its own device.
“Until we had Shield to go along with Tegra, we didn’t get nearly the attention that we had at CES,” Rehbock said, referring to the annual consumer electronics show in January where “Project Shield” was revealed.
I had suspected that selling large quantities wasn’t the primary objective for Nvidia Shield. Back in January, I theorized that Shield would succeed even if it didn’t sell well, because it would help legitimize Android gaming, in which Nvidia has a vested interest. As gaming on phones and tablets grows, chip makers need Android to take market share away from the iPhone and iPad, which use custom chips made by Apple.
Rehbock confirmed my suspicions, saying that the company’s goal in mobile gaming is similar to what it is in PCs. Nvidia isn’t really interested in having games that run exclusively on Shield. In fact, when you buy a game through Shield’s interface, it dumps you out to the Google Play Store, and that purchase will work on other Android devices. Nvidia’s goal is to make Android games perform better on its own hardware, so people begin to associate Nvidia with mobile gaming.
That attitude also explains the work Nvidia is doing with physical controller support for Android games. During a talk at Google I/O, Seis explained that Nvidia has essentially come up with a standard, allowing many different game controllers to provide a similar experience. Other companies, including Ouya, Gamestick, WikiPad, Nyko, Moga and Steelseries, are all using the guidelines that Nvidia has set out.
Nvidia has essentially wrapped a marketing hook around that standard, Seis said, by advertising controllers as “Built for Nvidia Tegra.” Nvidia has found that consumers gravitate toward those controllers even if they’re more expensive.
“People will pay $10 for piece of mind,” Rehbock said.
I’ve wondered whether Google might eventually take more of a leadership role, and provide its own guidelines for game developers who want to use physical controls. But neither Rehbock nor Seis see that happening anytime soon. Between developer outreach and marketing to users, putting an official Google stamp on Android game controls is a lot of work. (Seis said that Nvidia routinely cold-calls top app developers, asking them to add controller support to their games.) Google has a lot of other responsibilities to worry about, Seis said, and the company may not want to restrict developers to a specific type of physical controls.
Nvidia, meanwhile, is happy to push the idea of the traditional game controller, replete with buttons, triggers and analog thumbsticks. With its Tegrazone app, Nvidia is basically creating a platform within a platform where Android users can find good games, many of which offer controller support.
Even if Nvidia Shield is a commercial failure, Nvidia will come out okay if the device gets more people thinking about Android gaming, and Tegra 4 in particular. And if it encourages more developers to add support for game controllers, it’ll be good for gamers–even those who think the price is a royal rip-off.