Nvidia’s Surprise ‘Project Shield’ Handheld Games Console Shakes Up CES 2013

Nvidia just fired a shot across everyone's bow with something completely unexpected: an Nvidia-brand handheld game device with a dedicated 5-inch display that'll also stream games wirelessly to your HD television.

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Everywhere you look these days, someone wants into your living room. Nintendo just launched its Wii-quel, the Wii U, developer Boxer8 is busy getting its Kickstarter-funded OUYA Android-based game console ready for an April 2013 launch and rumor has it Microsoft and Sony will unveil their next-gen boxes later this year.

Enter GPU big shot Nvidia, firing a shot across everyone’s bow with something completely unexpected: an Nvidia-brand handheld game device with a dedicated 5-inch display that’ll also stream games wirelessly to your television.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the device is codenamed “Project Shield,” runs on Android Jellybean, looks like a classic full-sized gamepad with an attached (detachable?) hinge-style 720p “retinal” multi-touch screen, runs off the newest version of the company’s Tegra-series “system on a chip” processors — specifically, a custom 72-core Nvidia GeForce GPU / quad-core A15 CPU — and doesn’t yet have a release date. Nvidia claims it employs “breakthrough” Wi-Fi technology (802.11n 2×2 MIMO) and “stunning” high-definition video and audio.

Who knows how capable it’ll be of running, say, something on par with Crysis 3, what demographic Nvidia’s really targeting and whether the launch games will be platform-unique or just repeats of what you can play on any other Android device. Regardless, it is kind of a big deal from an industry standpoint.

Chances are if you’ve played a game at any point during the past 20 years, you’ve played on Nvidia hardware. The company got into the chip biz on the PC side of things back in 1993, eventually snapping up rival 3dfx in 2000 and hopping into set-top consoles with the advent of Microsoft’s original Xbox in late 2001. Since then, Nvidia’s been a vanguard in game-hardware design. It’s GeForce series of PC processors still dominate the PC gaming landscape (Nvidia’s only rival is AMD/ATI and it’s well ahead in terms of discrete graphics market share) and it’s the GPU brain-center of Sony’s PlayStation 3 (the so-called “RSX Reality Synthesizer”). You’ll find Nvidia’s Tegra-series of mobile processors in smartphones ranging from the HTX One X to various Motorola and Samsung mobile devices, and Nvidia just so happens to be the GPU powering both my MacBook Pro Retina (a GeForce GT 650M) and the strictly-for-gaming PC sitting under my desk (a GeForce GTX 670).

Why the move to “verticalize” and get into the end-platform game? Probably for the reasons the Journal mentions: Nvidia has, in recent years, given up ground to rival AMD in the set-top market. Nintendo’s consoles from the GameCube forward have all used AMD/ATI parts. The Xbox 360 uses an AMD/ATI graphics processor, and Microsoft’s next set-top, whatever it’s called, has been rumored for years to employ an AMD/ATI graphics core. As the Journal notes, Microsoft recently made a similar move from the opposite direction with its Microsoft-manufactured Surface tablet. And then there’s the whole history of Nvidia’s on-again, off-again relationships with companies like Apple.

No doubt Nvidia wants end-to-end control of the process (as well as that hypothetically bigger slice of the revenue pie). “Project Shield” sounds like a toe in the water, then, a chance to see see how well it can design and market a consumer-ready product, while capitalizing on a long history of working with game developers to optimize game performance across all kinds of devices.

But Nvidia isn’t itself a game designer, and it’s not entirely clear what sort of experience the company intends. The device as pictured looks like a traditional gamepad with d-pad, four face buttons and dual analog thumbsticks as well as stereo speakers (just above the d-pad and face buttons, respectively) and media pause/play buttons. Despite these core gaming trademarks, given its smallish size and Android pedigree, it’s probably not intended to compete directly with whatever’s next from Microsoft and Sony.

And then there’s the wireless streaming tech to think about. Anyone who’s used an iOS device with Apple’s AirPlay Mirroring technology knows how flaky things can sometimes be, latency-wise (though Nintendo seems to have its arms around the latency issue with wireless streaming between its Wii U base station and Wii U GamePad). Can Nvidia offer essentially latency-free big-screen gaming for core gamers looking for a Call of Duty-caliber experience?

On the other hand, Nvidia’s announcement has to be unsettling for do-it-yourself Android-based Kickstarter startups like OUYA and Gamestick. Nvidia has resources that utterly dwarf the latter two’s. While I’d hate to see promising fledgling indie efforts steamrolled by an industry heavyweight, I’d equally hate to be on the receiving end of an Android-based console war with a company like Nvidia. It’s arguably a David and Goliath thing, except in this case Goliath’s wearing full body armor.

An inexpensive Android-based dedicated game console/portable hardly seems a shoo-in at this point, nor am I convinced, given the lack of enthusiasm for something like Sony’s PlayStation Vita (which I still love, incidentally), that a larger, kludgy-looking game “portable” — a gamepad with a tacked-on screen — is going to romance either casual or core players. Out of the gate, Nvidia’s touting titles available through Google Play and Nvidia’s own TegraZone, so games like Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Rochard, Real Boxing, Dead Trigger 2, Burn Zombie Burn and ARMA Tactics — stuff that straddles the line between casual and core, in other words.

In any event, assuming Nvidia sells this thing at a competitive price point and releases it soon, and in case you thought the market for standalone Android-based game consoles looked a little shaky with first-timers like OUYA and Gamestick leading the charge, the playing field just got worlds more interesting.

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete coverage of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show