Among a predictable sea of 4K TVs, fitness trackers and connected car tech at CES, Nvidia’s Project Shield turned out to be the show’s biggest surprise.
No one expected that the company best known for PC graphics processors — and more recently, mobile chips — would announce its own handheld Android-based gaming system. Suddenly, Nvidia had to juggle a lot more meeting requests with the press, who were eager to try out the new hardware. I was barely able to finagle some hands-on time during my last day at the show.
The bulk of Project Shield consists of a full-sized game controller that’s a bit larger than an Xbox 360 gamepad, with Nvidia’s Tegra 4 processor inside. A 5-inch, 720p touch screen folds open from the controller like a clamshell.
Although Nvidia’s still working on some aspects of the controller, its dual thumbsticks were smooth and precise even in the prototype I played with. The Tegra 4 chip made mincemeat of the latest Android games, running them at velvety smooth framerates even when outputting video to a television over HDMI.
Project Shield has another neat trick: If you have a gaming PC running on a newer Nvidia graphics card, the handheld can play those PC games over your home network connection. Think of it like OnLive, but streaming right from your PC instead of from faraway servers. To my surprise, input lag was insignificant in Nvidia’s meeting room as I lined up sniper shots in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Nvidia says it’s all thanks to the work it’s done in its Kepler PC graphics cards, and claims that the latency over an 802.11n router is no worse than that of a wireless game console controller.
If you’re into gaming, this might all seem pretty nifty. What’s not to like about the combination of low-priced, low attention span Android games to play on the road, and hardcore PC games to play on your couch or in your bedroom?
Well, it turns out that Project Shield has plenty of detractors. The Verge’s Vlad Savov, for instance, says the dedicated gaming device is too late to the scene:
Who’s selling pure gaming devices these days, anyway? Even the venerable Xbox 360 and PS3 have gradually transformed into home entertainment hubs rather than simple interactive experience pushers. Project Shield is, to use a cliched but accurate analogy, skating to where the puck used to be.
Ben Kuchera, editor of Penny Arcade Report, is skeptical about the desirability of Android games:
There are suddenly so many Android consoles, but to play what standout games? What breakout hits? I honestly don’t get it.
Savov is right that the handheld console industry isn’t booming anymore. And Kuchera makes a fair point about Android’s weaknesses as a gaming platform. If Nvidia’s goal with Project Shield is to sell a boatload of handhelds in short order, chances are it’s a doomed enterprise. Even the PC gaming element, cool factor aside, only appeals to people who have the latest Nvidia graphics cards and hundreds of dollars left in disposable income, which I imagine is not a huge market. (Also, we don’t yet know how expensive Project Shield will be or what its release date will be, aside from some time in the second quarter.)
But let’s consider for a moment that Nvidia isn’t merely trying to sell lots of handhelds. Maybe it’s just trying to legitimize Android gaming and spur interest from players and developers. Doing so would benefit Nvidia in the long run, even if Project Shield isn’t a big hit.
Right now, when people talk about phones and tablets disrupting the handheld gaming market, they’re basically talking about the iPhone and the iPad. Because Apple designs its own processors, Nvidia doesn’t benefit from the ascent of iOS. And although Android tablet market share has grown recently, that’s mostly at the hands of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which doesn’t use Nvidia chips either. It behooves Nvidia to help plain old Android become a gaming powerhouse, in turn ensuring more sales of devices with its processors inside.
Controller-based gaming represents a way forward. It’s an area that Apple hasn’t done much to support in iOS, and it’s growing faster among Android apps. A cottage industry has grown around Android games with physical controller support, with several controllers already on the market and a decent selection of games that support them. More recently, Ouya and GameStick have promised to bring Android gaming to the living room after launching successful funding campaigns on Kickstarter.
What’s missing, however, is the support of a larger company — one that can market the idea of Android gaming on a larger scale and use its existing relationships with game developers to get them on board. It looks like Nvidia will fill that role (though I wouldn’t rule out Google stepping in at some point as well). Already, publishers Epic Games and Ubisoft have expressed interest in Project Shield.
Some people might have preferred a different kind of hardware from Nvidia — say, a standalone tablet with an attachable game controller — but a dedicated gaming device is the best way to get things rolling. It sends the message that gaming is the main focus, and provides extra incentive for developers to build Tegra-optimized games for physical controllers.
And really, that’s the goal. Nvidia needs to legitimize Android gaming and show people that Tegra-powered devices are the best way to play. Eventually, that translates to more sales of its processors.
Would it be better if Android already had a huge base of loyal gamers? Of course. But that’s not the reality, so Nvidia is trying to break the vicious cycle by putting out some interesting hardware. Even if it’s only a minor commercial success, it’ll kickstart the Android gaming scene in ways that a flood of bargain basement tablets never could — and prevent the future of handheld gaming from becoming synonymous with Apple. For Nvidia, that would be a fine outcome.
MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete coverage of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show