The latest entry into the mobile console space, a unit called the Gametrac, is set to offer GPS positioning and data communications functionality, as well as music and movie playback.
The system, which is being developed by Tiger Telematics subsidiary Gametrac Europe, is due for launch in Q2 2004, and sports a comprehensive feature-set for a mobile device, including Bluetooth support and a built in digital camera.
Interestingly, however, the device doesn't seem to be built to allow voice calls - making it very much into a game system with added wireless functionality, rather than a replacement mobile phone. It will however support MP3 music and MPEG4 movie playback.
The GPS functionality is an unusual addition to the offering, and while it certainly offers potential for interesting gameplay twists - knowing the physical location of everyone in an online game could be a powerful tool in the hands of a good game designer - it seems mostly to have been incorporated with parents in mind, as it will, in theory, enable them to track the location of their wayward offspring wherever they may be.
In terms of games, the Gametrac will use the Mophun software platform, licensed from Synergenix, for 2D and 3D game engine functionality. Mophun is already used in a number of high end phones from Sony Ericsson, and should allow the majority of Java wireless games to be ported to the Gametrac easily - or simply to run straight off, without modifications.
The system itself is laid out like a GBA-style handheld console, with a 4.2 x 3.5cm screen (offering 320x200 resolution in 16 bit colour) sat between an eight-way d-pad, four face buttons and two shoulder buttons. The camera lens is on the back of the unit.
It's not known what exactly will be inside the system in hardware terms, but we do know that it'll take removable SD memory cards (the same as those used by the N-Gage), and it seems likely that some form of XScale processor (the current evolution of the popular ARM processor family, a very low end version of which also powers the GBA) will sit at the heart of the device.
Gametrac Europe seems very serious indeed about its launch, having secured sponsorship with the Jordan Formula One team throughout the coming season, and it is working with UK-based electronics supplier Plextek, with an initial order of 25,000 units of the console already placed. That may seem low, but it's expected that the first roll-out of the hardware will be in the UK only.
Of course, the real question is how much the system will cost. According to respected UK tech news site The Register, which revealed most of the detail about the system earlier this week, the Gametrac will launch for around Â£126 without a SIM, and mobile networks Orange and T-Mobile are planning to offer it for Â£60, presumably tied to a data-only tariff.
It's easy to write off the Gametrac at this early stage. It's entering a marketplace where Nintendo rules the roost with the GBA, the N-Gage continues to disappoint despite the backing of mobile phone giant Nokia, and the shadow of Sony's PSP looms ever closer. However, it's a brave experiment, and its target audience seems to be kids and young teens rather than adults (like the N-Gage and PSP), which instantly makes it into a more interesting prospect. If Gametrac can find a way to market the device without going head to head with Nintendo's pint-sized behemoth, there may well be a slice of the market that's prepared to pick up on this new entrant.
Further Reading: [Gametrac mobile console to ship for under Â£60 - The Register]