Beyond Pong on Palms


By Jeff Green Executives hunch grimly over their handheld computers, taking notes from a presentation that has been droning on for hours. But two of the suits stand out. Every so often, they gasp quietly, jerk their head to the side, or sit back abruptly in their chair in apparent disappointment. In fact, these two bored execs aren't taking notes at all. They're playing an interactive game of soccer, racing up and down a virtual field and passing the ball to other handheld-wielding team members using infrared beams.

Sounds farfetched? Not for long. German developer Stone Age Software is weeks away from releasing an interactive handheld soccer game for the Palm operating system called IR Footie, according to company President Adrian May. Two players, each with their own handheld, use their fingers to push on the dimunitive computer screen and send a simulated ball back and forth between the devices via infrared rays. Each player can see the ball and the opposing player as they try to score a goal.

Granted, IR Footie isn't much more than competitive finger Pong. But it's only the beginning. May says he's also toying with the concept of a handheld interactive race-car game and an aerial-dogfight program. With an exchange rate of 115 kilobits per second, the infrared port allows more than enough information to be transmitted back and forth for simple games.

MULTIPLAYER MAYHEM. Beyond basic head-to-head competition is where things get really interesting. May says if wireless technologies like Bluetooth catch on, multiple Palm owners could join in games. He has even thought about a freeware first-person shooter game where players are equipped with a simple pistol. They would pay to upgrade their weapons and gain an edge over their numerous competitors.

The rise of these multiplayer games could spark an explosion of handheld game playing. It was precisely this shift into the multiplayer realm, with blockbuster titles such as Doom and Quake, that drove rapid growth in online competitive gaming played over office networks or the Internet. May believes that there could be room for more sophisticated role-playing games a la Clue. For example, he envisions a game that might allow competitors to sidle by and launch an attack on your Palm when your guard is down in a virtual adaptation of the dart-gun assassination games that were all the rage in the early 1980s.

For the near future, however, don't expect expect thrilling graphics and breathtaking multiplayer games for Palm OS machines, says John Hurst, developer-relations manager at Palm's chief competitor, Handspring, which also uses the Palm OS. Hurst says serious hardware hurdles need to be overcome. The operating system does not allow for diagonal motion on the screen. And the aging Palm computer chip is not well suited to gaming applications.

ATARI-LEVEL. Furthermore, even powerful Palms lack sufficient memory for truly graphic-rich games. By comparison, some PocketPC handhelds using Microsoft's operating system have power to spare, faster chips, and screens that can handle anything a monitor can.

But things are getting better for Palm gamers. With the addition of color screens to many of the devices, games have been improving. Now you can play lively knock-offs of Space Invaders and Missile Defense. That puts Palm games on par with the Atari technology of the late 1970s but still light years away from the amazingly lifelike and fast PC games of today. Some of this lag is because gaming has never been the selling point for Palm OS handhelds. Owning a Palm is all about tracking contacts and appointments and maybe a game of solitaire while waiting to board the plane.

But as displays improve and technology gets better, Palm could well become a solid gaming platform. Hurst has been encouraging developers to create game bundles that can be plugged into Handspring's expansion slot and thus don't take up memory on the machine. At this point, he says, most of the interest is in old, side-scrolling games like Frogger and Pac Man. Several developers are dusting off old license agreements to see who owns the rights to the 1980s games that might be adapted for Palm, Hurst says. But any attempt at 3D gaming remains in the dark ages.

As handhelds keep proliferating, major developers of online games have begun to contact Handspring. Hurst says he does expect those sorts of games to catch on as the Palm community upgrades the computer chips and as wireless technology improves. But that could be several years away. So for now, bored executives will have to kill time with IR Footie. Green , BusinessWeek correspondent based in Detroit, is crazy about handhelds. Follow his perspectives on Palm-based technologies, only on BW Online


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