I recently decided to return to Pandora and complete my shamefully unfinished game of Gearbox’s stellar co-op RPG shooter, Borderlands 2. I couldn’t put it down when the game first launched, but my gaming habits are dictated around work and family, so long adventures like this all too often fall to the wayside. After booting up and inviting a trio of friends, we went to visit good old “Terramorphous the Invincible”. Then it hit me: my daughter had a dentist appointment. Sure, her teeth are gorgeous, but all the while I lost my best chance to take down the infernal Terramorphous. Damn! I wish I had an Nvidia Project Shield!

This scenario is a real one. With Shield I could have paused my game, gone to the dentist with my daughter, checked her in and resumed play over Wi-Fi. Then I could have had my arse handed to me by the “invincible” Terramorphous–all while in the waiting room. We’ve written about this before.  It’s one of the few gaming devices coming out that could  add real value to all players. This article will discuss why that is an how it works.

What is Nvidia Project SHIELD?

Project SHIELD is an  Android-based portable gaming device that can stream PC games. The 5-inch flip-up display supports multi-touch and does 720p. It’s powered by the company’s all-new Tegra 4 mobile CPU that features the latest in ARM processing. SHIELD can run Android games locally from internal storage, and it can stream PC games either from Nvidia’s own GRID cloud service or directly from user-owned GeForce GPU-equipped PC’s running Valve’s Steam digital distribution service.

Playing Android games is just like any smartphone: you download and play. What’s interesting is how PC games play.They are streamed from your home desktop running a 600 series (or later) Nvidia GeForce video card,or from the “cloud” over Nvidia’s aforementioned GRID cloud service. On paper it’s a powerful service. In our 6 of the Coolest Tech for Gamers in 2013, I wrote, “When streaming games from Nvidia GRID cloud service… server side infrastructure is made up of multiple GPUs per server and multiple users are serviced per GPU. Nvidia’s new VGX HyperVision technology governs GPU resources so a minimum of 36 users–all viewing HD quality content–are serviced on a single server without compromising quality or performance.” -GR

You don’t have to worry about SHIELD hardware keeping pace with the advancements in PC gaming. Because SHIELD is only a conduit for your PC games. It’s not crunching “texels per clock” on the device. This is happening at the GRID server level for cloud gaming. For streaming from your PC, you need to make sure your desktop GPU is up to snuff. Nvidia recommends a GTX 650. I say a GTX 660ti or higher is the smarter choice. Plus they’re dirt cheap. Additionally, Steam is required to be installed on your PC.

Steam and the “Big Picture”

Nvidia SHIELD will speak directly and fluently to Steam on your PC by way of WiFi or over 3G/4G networks. With Steam, game management is familiar and consistent. Steam is a digital distribution platform for games and software. It’s a free application that allows users to purchase and download games directly to their hard drive. It functions the same as the Xbox Live Marketplace, for example. Steam is also completely free to use and like Xbox Live and it’s “Marketplace,” both wield formidable social networking features for gamers like voice chat, video sharing, screenshots, join groups/communities, host events etc. Moreover, all of the security and options can be set on the desktop, through a smartphone app, or directly on Shield.

Anyone with a SHIELD can easily and remotely tap into all that Steam has to offer. For clarity, here’s a quick list of highlights about Steam (and PC-gaming)

  • The Steam distribution platform is already home to over 1,500 game titles. For perspective, Xbox Live Marketplace has about 1,000.
  • Valve just released Steam Big Picture, it’s a new feature that washes Steam in a TV-ready bath of 1080p richness, sharp textured text and a working set top browser. This includes complete controller/gampad support.
  • More than 240 million personal computers were sold in 2012. It’s safe to say that nearly any computer made within the last couple years is capable of running Steam. Note: for SHIELD to stream from a PC, that PC needs a GTX 650 or higher.
  • The Steam games library is unsurpassed, but so is its user base with a ridiculous 50 million registered Steam users!

Mobile Gaming Reborn

The mobile gaming implications are marvelous. You could essentially start-up a game at home on your PC and continue over Project SHIELD while on the bus. When an HDMI-ready TV is available, plug in to enjoy your games like you would a game console such as Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.

SHIELD can potentially revolutionize traditional LAN parties as well, where gamers bring their PCs together to one place and play for long sessions in the same room. Instead of lugging a desktop to a friend’s house, you could simply take your SHIELD. Even hardcore PC gamers can take advantage of Shield’s Bluetooth radio and connect a keyboard and mouse for precision gaming.

Open and Familiar

One of the great things about the device is its open platform. Project SHIELD is not trying to reinvent the console; it’s opening up the PC to a much broader audience.  All those closed proprietary standards that come with console manufacturing are incredibly expensive. By using traditional standards such as Ethernet, HDMI and the like, Nvidia is positioned to actually turn a profit on the hardware itself, while reaching a mass audience.

 The device is the product of meticulous thought “by gamers for gamers”. Android is an open and easy-to-use mobile operating system; the Tegra 4 processor is expected to be one of the most powerful mobile CPU/GPU chips released this year; and utilizing Steam and existing GeForce desktop GPUs, NVidia has everything ready for this bold device. It’s open to customization, plenty of different uses, and it isn’t a phone or a tablet. This is existing tech (Tegra and GeForce) made to play nice with existing systems (Steam, Tegra Zone and Android).

It’s Not a Tablet?

So why not a tablet or a new more intelligent smartphone? Well I could hazard a few educated guesses. But the limitations (screen size, controls, battery life, and processing power) are obvious. There’s just too  much that a phone and a tablet don’t do right for gaming. Every tablet and smartphone has an army of aftermarket controllers or sticky add-ons to simulate a controller on-screen–all of which make gaming seem secondary.

In addition, Nvidia has gone on record stating, “SHIELD began with an effort to strip gaming down to its most essential component: a controller.” Most likely the reason being, a gamer’s favorite controller will outlast girlfriends, that sweet “I Shot JR” T-shirt and the shelf life of a Twinkie. Look at the Sony PlayStation controller. It has not seen a significant design change since the original PlayStation system launched in 1994. Our modern-day controllers come from over 30 years of evolution; there’s a reason why it works. And that just isn’t available on smartphones and tablets.

Nvidia has chosen the most sustainable and endlessly familiar piece of gaming to be the window for which you tap in to your existing collection of mobile and PC games. If a tablet or smartphone were the centerpiece, then comfortable control would still be a gap needing to be filled (see Fling peripheral above). This would also place Nvidia in direct competition with Apple, Asus, HP and other tablet manufacturers, which would undoubtedly lead them astray from their main focus of expanding the capabilities and playgrounds for PC gaming. While merely a strategic guess, I would say, this is the essential bundle of reasoning why SHIELD is based around a controller and not a tablet or phone.  It allows Nvidia to stay focused while maintaining ease of accessibility and familiarity with their core customer base–gamers.

Ease of Use

It all sounds orgasmically turnkey. Not only does Project SHIELD pull from your existing library of games, it also makes HD gaming available in every room that has an HDMI-ready television. My daughter can stream Trine 2 to from my PC upstairs to the living room TV downstairs while I continue working on my PC. That’s exciting stuff.  Sometimes I want to play Battlefield 3 in the same room with the wife while she reads. Project SHIELD says, “Do it!” All you need to stream your games is a network connection (WiFi or 3G/4G) and a Nvidia GeForce GTX 650 or better. Sadly the tech doesn’t play so nice with older cards below the 600 series.

Are You Excited Yet?

But the most exciting and forward thinking aspect of SHIELD cannot be overstated. Nvidia reiterates it best conveying SHIELD has, the flexibility to tap into innovative new services built for the PC ecosystem, such as the “Big Picture” mode software developer Valve has created for its Steam software distribution service. “Big Picture,” lets gamers put the games they’ve purchased through Steam on the TV in their living room. SHIELD takes that same concept of moving PC gaming to the TV and brings it to any TV or directly onto the device. In effect, it makes a hobby once reserved for those with the money to afford an expensive gaming laptop or those who are forced to sit and play games at their desktop computers to enjoy that media from anywhere. That’s extremely powerful, and it’s something that I’m really excited about.

I’m excited about it because unlike when I was younger, my life now revolves around a lot of different things, many of which require my attention away from home. When I want (and can) play my favorite games, I’m not necessarily at my desktop. But Wi-Fi is available almost everywhere, and with a solid service, it’s reasonable to bet that the experience Shield promises to provide, while perhaps not quite the same as playing on a PC, is the next best thing. Some may say that you can stream to a smartphone or tablet, but the bare minimum required to play any game is a solid user interface; that’s where the controller design kicks in. And Nvidia’s latest Tegra processor, with enhanced graphics and Wi-Fi performance, can make that happen.

Listen, know one knows how it will all pan out. The strength of the Cloud and streaming platforms are big question marks. Also, cost is a crucial unknown. To enjoy it all you need a 600 series GeForce video card. So we’ll factor in that cost for folks who don’t own one–but only until Nvidia spills the beans on the MSRP.

The way I game and what I play are not suited for tablets and phones. But a window that peers in into my Steam library for playback on any HDMI-ready TV, is a mobile gaming experience I am passionately excited about. How about you?

 Intro image courtesy of Mashable

Shawn Sanders

Shawn loves gadgets, literature, history and games. For 10yrs+ he's straddled both the comic book & video game industries, as a writer, editor, marketing officer & producer. Shawn got his start in tech & games as an editor & Hardware Director for GameRevolution.com. More notable accomplishments include Executive Producer on mobile games Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved & The Shroud.