Mobile is the key to the future of pixels.
By Omid Rahmat
For anyone with a Gandalfian perspective on the history of computer graphics, the notion that VR, or its blockier cousin, the metaverse, is going to be a really big thing may conjure up decades of dashed hopes and a graveyard of stereoscopic glasses and head-mounted displays built for claustrophiliacs. Nice big, flat screens seemed to be the ideal, but something happened, and that something is now ready to change computer graphics markets for the next decade.
It would be nice to see display technology on a spectrum going from massive digital displays in an IMAX theater, all the way down to some overlaid graphics in a window of a set of smart glasses. However, for most consumers, it boils down to more basic choices—sit and watch, or move and watch. Sit and watch isn’t usually a desktop because that’s mostly a work thing, a sort of digital ball and chain. And laptops are still just casual Friday ball and chains for work things. It’s the phone that sets the agenda for the integrative application of technology in our day-to-day lives.
When it comes to chasing pixels, that means coming to the firm conclusion that size doesn’t matter anymore. Quality and performance still do, but there are three generations coming up that are overwhelming driven by mobile computing over and above almost any other technology, and they expect to have any experience they could have on a desktop computer delivered on a phone.
How can we be sure that this is true? Lots of reasons, starting with the fact that almost every application or service or software that we use has a mobile component, and no matter how powerful the application, the expectation is that you can get some base-level functionality out of your mobile device. So, you may not be using Photoshop on your iPhone, but you can certainly manage the workflow of a team working with multiple Adobe products on a project. But that’s not really where pixels get the most bucks for their work. Consumers and entertainment are what drive the big numbers for high-performance graphics.
The truth of the matter is that no one wants to spend money supporting platforms any more. There are too many of them. If you don’t believe that, then try building an Android app and supporting the abyss that is the fragmented user base around the world, meaning that every Android phone is a separate platform with its own hardware limitations and issues. The truth is that no one can afford to support all platforms because distribution is online, and online can mean anyone, anywhere, anytime. We can safely say that the pixel has moved into the cloud, like almost every other digital technology.
It may be that the impact on add-in board (AIB) sales and GPUs in laptops and PCs may be absorbable, but let’s put that into perspective—you sell 300 million PCs a year, and that’s still niche market compared to two billion phones. And two billion phone users are probably going to spend as much, if not more, on their pixels as the niche number of PC users who really value their pixels.
If you want to chase pixels, you are about to enter the multiverse and, as we know from the spate of movies that will have dissected the multiverse for us this summer, it is madness.
Would Steve Jobs have ever approved an Apple VR/AR headset? Madness. Would you ever have expected the New York Post to review cloud gaming services? It’s getting whacky out there. Did you ever think you wouldn’t need to wait in line for the latest graphics board ever again, that you could just rent a fully-loaded top-of-the-line PC in the cloud and never worry about an upgrade ever again? Someday they will sell clouds that are in the cloud. Mind blown!
The power in graphics is shifting from the client device to the server or virtual machine (VM). Sure, bandwidth, latency, dropped frames, and jitter don’t really inspire confidence when you are just tens of a millisecond twitch away from throwing your controller at the screen, but that’s just nitpicking. Netflix, Disney+, and every other replacement for tethered TV has taught us enough to know that anywhere, anytime and smorgasbords of content libraries, all for one reasonable monthly price, win every time.
Omid Rahmat sits at the intersection of technology and entertainment, the place where all the best pixels seem to be having the most fun.