Qualcomm product management boss looks at the future of console-quality visuals on mobile

MOBILE GUIDE: How far have GPUs come?


Mobile innovation is at an all-time high. Earlier this year, chip manufacturers announced product roadmaps for the availability of multi-core chips for next-generation smartphones and tablets, making significant steps forward in allowing the mobile industry to deliver even more robust, efficient and seamless video gaming experiences.

While intense competition might raise our collective blood pressure, there’s no doubt that it has led to increased power, speed and sophistication for mobile devices. In particular, we’re seeing incredible performance gains in the graphics arena, with powerful new forms of GPU technology enabling HD-like visuals on mobile phones. In a field once dominated by voice communication, graphics and multimedia have truly become the prime conduit for transforming consumers’ mobile experiences and expectations.


Perhaps no mobile feature has benefitted more from the historic advances in graphical innovation than gaming. Consumers today are voting with their wallets – and the numbers speak for themselves. According to Juniper Research, the mobile gaming industry will be worth £29.5 billion ($48 billion) by 2015. The smartphone industry’s share of the US portable gaming market jumped from 19 to 34 per cent from 2009 to 2010, and smartphones now account for eight per cent of overall gaming revenue, up three per cent from last year.

Among social gamers, mobile has emerged as the dominant platform. Mobile users now utilise their devices for games at a 61 per cent clip, more than any other feature, including search and music.

And we’re not talking about Tetris and Pac-Man. 1080p video – once a pipe dream in mobile – will soon be a reality for smartphone users.

As gaming becomes more globally relevant, it’s becoming clear that the GPU has emerged as the heart of the mobile experience.


The rapid transition from voice to data in the mobile space represents a golden opportunity for the graphics industry, but there are a number of hurdles to clear in order to capitalise. While mobile games rapidly increase in popularity, we still have a long way to go before mobile begins to seriously challenge the console gaming sector in terms of overall revenue.

The solution? We need to bring console graphics straight to mobile devices, providing on-the-go consumers with the same immersive gaming experience they get at home. That means enabling incumbent console systems like Xbox and PlayStation onto smartphones and developing graphics advanced enough to leave consumers asking: ‘Why relegate myself to gaming on my couch when I can get the same optimal quality on my phone or tablet?’

The leading 3D tools that Qualcomm provides to developers, such as the Snapdragon SDK and Adreno GPU real-time profiler, makes it possible for developers to bring these on-the-go gaming experiences directly to the consumer.

As GPU technology becomes powerful enough to support native-like gaming and video, software development must be optimised to ensure that all-day battery life is prevalent in all smartphones.

Executing this delicate balance is perhaps the most daunting challenge as we continue to enhance GPU technology. Consumers shouldn’t have to choose between late-night gaming with a friend and firing off a few tweets – our batteries should afford us to do both, and soon they will.

Overcoming these optimisation challenges will actually exacerbate one of the more over-arching issues our industry faces.

It’s well known that as GPUs become more enhanced, data-heavy apps become enticing options for consumers. Unfortunately, these rich apps are beginning to cripple the very carriers that make them possible in the first place. GPU technology will need to meet this problem head on and show that it is indeed possible to retain superior graphics while streamlining the process in order to alleviate network stress.


Recognising the need to integrate multimedia and 2D and 3D graphics into mobile chipsets, Qualcomm made the tactical decision to acquire AMD’s handheld graphics division in 2009. We incorporated the division into our Snapdragon chipset team to bring increased levels of GPU performance embedded into our chipsets, naming the GPU product Adreno.

Since the launch of the first Snapdragon powered devices each iteration has seen our Adreno GPU increase to offer more advanced capabilities. The first Snapdragon to launch incorporated the Adreno 200 GPU, which included support for 3D graphics with the first 1GHz CPU to launch in mobile devices.

Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon chipsets feature our Adreno 220 GPU, capable of delivering an HD gaming experience that exceeds PS2 and original Xbox. Next year, Qualcomm’s integrated Adreno GPUs for Snapdragon will take mobile gaming a new level of console quality graphics for mobile devices, matching the gaming experience of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, while at the same time consuming less power than current chipsets in the market.

With Snapdragon powering the majority of Android devices, all Windows Phone 7 devices, all HP webOS devices and supporting BlackBerry, the platform is arguably now one of the largest worldwide for gaming.

As proof of this, there are currently more than 125 announced devices including the Sony Ericcson Xperia Play, HTC Sensation, HTC Evo 3D and HP TouchPad, with another 250 in development. When it comes to the emerging tablet sector, eight have been announced with another 40 in design.


Close and productive partnerships have made the mobile industry more than a sum of its parts. With games and video streaming emerging as major selling points to consumers considering making the jump to smartphones, there is serious money to be made via lasting collaboration between OEMs and chipmakers.
IE Market Research Corp recently predicted that the market for mobile gaming, music and TV will hit £32 billion ($52 billion) by 2015 – up a substantial amount from the £20.3 billion ($32.9 billion) value in 2009. And the key to making that prediction a reality lies on advancements in GPU capabilities.

The market potential for mobile developers is significant, and unlike console gaming, developers don’t need to wait six years for the next console edition to come out – Android is coming out with new cycles every six months. Collaboration is key. It’s the connective tissue that has driven innovation in mobile for three decades, and fostering it on the GPU side will enhance the mobile community’s global impact as smartphones evolve from luxuries to virtual lifelines.


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