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Connected Homes June 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Kyle M. Whitman

Microconsoles

Why is this topic significant?

Microconsoles combine many of the benefits of full-size game consoles with the relatively low cost, small form factor, and low power consumption of streaming-media players and mobile devices. Yet microconsole games reside in a market niche, and efforts to promote the new game formats are currently facing challenges.

Description

Start-up company Ouya popularized the concept of the microconsole with its 2012 crowdfunding campaign, which ultimately led to a successful device launch in 2013. Many of the Ouya console's features and functions are common to microconsoles that other manufacturers released subsequently, including:

  • A very small and unobtrusive form factor, similar in size and shape to streaming-media devices;
  • Processing, graphics, and storage hardware roughly equal to that of mid-range to high-end smartphones of the time;
  • A wireless game controller similar to that of conventional home game consoles of the time;
  • Wireless LAN connectivity and HDMI output for connection to a television;
  • A lightweight operating system with a TV-optimized user interface;
  • Support for streaming-media playback from various online and LAN-based sources; and
  • An application marketplace featuring a selection of downloadable games from various developers.

Ouya runs a variant of Google's Android OS, and its game library features a selection of Android mobile games, many of which have modifications for TV-based display and use of a dedicated game controller. Other notable players that currently offer microconsoles include Amazon, Google, and Roku, all of which bundle Android-based microconsole functionality with one or more models of their streaming-media players; Sony, whose microconsole plays PlayStation Vita games as well as operates as a media extender for PlayStation systems; Apple, which includes some microconsole-like functionality in certain Apple TV models; and, most recently, Nvidia, which offers a much more powerful (and expensive) microconsole compared with its competitors.

Implications

Efforts to develop the microconsole market beyond its current niche face challenges because of larger forces in an industry that continues to see smartphones catalyzing huge growth in the user base for electronic gaming. Mass-market preoccupation with mobile games diverts attention and demand for games in other categories. For example, a single mobile game, Candy Crush Saga, which was released in 2012, had some 93 million daily players in 2014; this number is several times the entire installed base of Sony's PlayStation 4 console during the same period.

The traditional console gaming market has been volatile but retains a somewhat loyal core of users who are willing to pay high prices for new games, many of which have outstanding production values and are highly playable. In contrast, microconsole users frequently complain about a lack of compelling titles in microconsole app stores, and about software bugs and other quality issues.

Impacts/Disruptions

Nvidia's new microconsole, the Shield Android TV, represents something of a hybrid between existing microconsoles and full-fledged game consoles. But early adopters have given the device generally poor reviews thus far. Nvidia plans eventually to link the Shield devices to its cloud-based rendering systems (see the April 2009 Viewpoints for a discussion of cloud-based rendering). Nvidia faces the particular challenge of distributing rendering duties across cloud resources and its microconsole, without rendering the microconsole's costly hardware superfluous.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Cloud-based gaming, cloud-based rendering, broadband connectivity, mobile gaming, set-top boxes, home entertainment

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

802.11ac

Why is this topic significant?

In 2014, the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying home-networking devices that implement the IEEE 802.11ac wireless-networking standard. The standard offers some major improvements in the usability and value of wireless networks for home users.

Description

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE-SA) approved the IEEE 802.11ac standard in 2014, after which the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying compliant devices, including home wireless access points, notebook computers, smartphones, set-top boxes, and other devices that commonly reside on home networks. Devices that comply with 802.11ac incorporate many technical features that improve throughput, range, and utility compared with the previous wave, 802.11n-compliant devices.

Implications

The 802.11ac specification mandates some changes that are of particular significance for connected-home applications.

  • 5-GHz exclusivity. Connections using 802.11ac operate exclusively in the 5-GHz band. Previous Wi-Fi standards operated either in the 2.4-GHz band exclusively or in a mix of 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. Within homes, the 2.4-GHz band tends to be very congested, because many other kinds of home devices use the band for communications or radiate energy within that band. Reduced congestion can be especially valuable in multidwelling units in which many residents have their own Wi-Fi networks.
  • Coordinated beamforming. The 802.11ac standard defines how connected devices can use MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) antennas to perform beamforming, a means of transmitting directional signals between pairs of devices. The previous Wi-Fi standard included beamforming but specified only a rudimentary way for multiple devices to coordinate the direction and strength of beams, which limited developers' ability to exploit the feature. Improved coordination promises to reduce interference, alleviate congestion, and improve throughput, as well as improve range in some indoor environments.
  • Multiuser MIMO (MU-MIMO). The 802.11ac standard specifies ways for a router and nearby devices to coordinate beamforming. Coordination by multiple devices enables several independent users to proceed with effectively no wireless interference from other users. MU-MIMO promises to let Wi-Fi serve increasingly dense collections of connected devices—a growing trend in home Wi-Fi networks.

Impacts/Disruptions

Home networks increasingly serve as the principal means of providing connectivity to mobile devices within homes. Thus Wi-Fi home LANs have become critical links between broadband services and mobile apps. Increasingly, mobile devices are competing with fixed devices such as network-connected televisions, game consoles, and security cameras for the large amounts of network throughput required to stream video content. Over the next 2–3 years, virtual-reality headsets will become additional home-network "residents" that impose further major demands on a home's wireless capacity. Technologies such as coordinated MU-MIMO will be important for allowing smooth integration of new and emerging devices into home networks.

Introduction of MU-MIMO technology into mass-market products points to further waypoints on the technology road map for home networks. Further evolution of embedded software that supports the multiuser aspects of MU-MIMO could foster increased meshing of Wi-Fi devices, yielding various improvements in range, throughput, and reliability. Generally, software-defined radios and cooperative networking could transform the trend toward an increasing density of connected things from a liability into an asset.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Home automation, home networks, mobile communications, fixed-mobile convergence, home entertainment, home health care, broadband connectivity

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: