Nvidia’s Project Shield and the First Steam Box…

Nvidia announced their Project Shield portable gaming device at CES on Monday, with no details on price. Or availability. Or battery life.

The Shield seems far too bulky and oddly shaped to carry around comfortably. It’s thicker and bulkier than existing portable gaming hardware and even thicker again compared to the average smartphone. Calling it portable is certainly optimistic — can you imagine this being used on public transport? It looks to be clunky and awkward in size, almost certainly too large for an average pocket. It also appears more delicate than a smartphone, with a hinged screen worth protecting. It may well be “portable”, but I can’t see this being used outside of the home to the same degree people use a Nintendo DS.

Fortunately, the Shield isn’t only trying to be a portable console. It has another trick up its sleeve.

Where the announcement gets really interesting is Nvidia’s integration with traditional PCs with Nvidia graphics cards. I’ve already pondered Valve’s interesting position in gaming and how it might create for an interesting future for consoles. Whilst the Shield isn’t a “Steam Box”, it’s possible to use the device as a controller for games on a PC and use the Shield’s screen instead of the PC to view the action. Essentially, the Shield becomes the screen and the controller for some of your PC games — in much the same way the new Wii U’s game pad acts as a screen and controller to the Wii U. Interesting.

Nvidia is presenting a device with two goals: to be a portable gaming system (running Android) and a way to play PC games in a more portable way… when at home. The Shield fails in the first goal — smartphones and existing gaming devices like the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS do far better jobs at either being mobile and ubiquitous (smartphones) or being a “good enough” compromise of mobile and quality gaming (portable consoles). The Shield isn’t mobile when compared to a smartphone and it isn’t better than existing home consoles or PCs for gaming around the house. I don’t even need to mention how short the battery life must be when streaming HD video over Wi-Fi.

If you want a portable gaming device, either use your smartphone or buy an existing console — which will come complete with a rich ecosystem of top-tier gaming titles. If you want a controller experience at home with pleasant HD graphics, either use a cheap Xbox controller with a gaming PC or simply get a full console. They’re cheaper than ever. The Shield is trying to solve problems which have already been solved.

As it stands today — before the Shield even exists — dedicated electronics hardware is in decline. Gaming hardware is dying. I don’t have much hope for existing portable gaming consoles like the DS or PSP, so announcing a brand new device with very few gaming titles in an arguably worse form factor than existing products seems to be a sure failure.

The First Steam Box?

Another related announcement to come out of CES is the “Piston”, the first Steam Box device for use with Valve’s Big Picture mode. As I said over a month ago, whilst speculating about the future for Valve and Steam’s Big Picture mode:

If Valve released moderately powerful hardware, bundled with a “Steam OS” and took away the hassles associated with PC gaming, they could be on to a winner.

I still stand by this. Valve are in a unique position: they create hugely successful games, own an extremely popular gaming distribution platform and have a huge audience: as I write this, nearly four million users are online on Steam. I believe we’ll know much more about Valve’s Big Picture mode when first party hardware is released. Until then, I remain hopeful. As I said back in December:

I wonder if existing console manufacturers even consider Valve a threat to their business today. Perhaps they should.