Exclusive On the basis of its web site, Gametrac Europe's kids-oriented handheld Windows CE .NET-based gaming console appears as much like vapourware as does Infinium Labs' still unlaunched Phantom. A few hi-res Wavefront or Maya renders and a noisy Flash presentation do not a real product make.
However, Gametrac's parent, Tiger Telematics, does at least have some impressive partners associated with the development of the console, making its debut during Q2 2004 seem more likely to happen.
Tiger was incorporated in 2001 to focus on developing systems to connect fleet managers to vehicles. Branching out into the aggressive mobile gaming arena seems an odd choice for such a company, but there is a similarity: the provision of data wirelessly.
Tiger has a European operation based in Farnborough. Gametrac is initially aimed at the UK market, so it's a fair bet the console's development is being led from the Hampshire town.
Gametrac Europe (GE) is working with Cambridge, UK-based electronics design consultancy and supplier Plextek, which names Psion, Sony, TDK, Marconi, Racall and a number of other communications, defence, industrial, scientific and medical industry heavyweights on its client list.
According to Plextek, it has been contracted to ship 25,000 Gametracs to GE during Q2 2004. That contract is described as a "multi-million pound" deal. A key aspect of Gametrac is GPS, the idea being that parents will be able to keep track of Little Johnny and Jilly whenever they're out of sight - or at least locate the handheld. Plextek says the GPS module that will be built into Gametrac "can even provide in-building coverage".
The unit will also incorporate Bluetooth, for mobile-to-mobile gaming, and there'll be a built-in camera too. Gametrac's removable storage medium is the SD/MMC card. The device will sport a 4.2 x 3.5cm, 16-bit colour, 320 x 200 LCD.
So much for the hardware. Plextek came on board last October. In November, GE said it is working with Canada's Intrinsyc Software to build the Gametec environment on top of WinCE, including the GSM/GPRS telephony stack. GE says Gametrac will offer mobile data communications, such as texting, multimedia messaging, WAP, email, and over-the-air game, music and ringtone downloads, but not voice, it seems. The device will feature a tri-band radio. It will support GSM Class 4 and GPRS Class 12 connections.
The handheld will also play MP3 music files and MPEG 4 video data. Polyphonic ringtones come courtesy of a Yamaha sound system.
Intrinsyc is no small-time player, having worked with Intel, Philips (on the iPronto multimedia controller), Panasonic, Siemens, IBM, BEA and Ford. It's also very close to Microsoft's WinCE .NET development efforts.
GE's second software partner is Synergenix, whose Mophun "software-based gaming console for mobile devices" will provide Gametrac with 2D and 3D game engines.
The N-Gage connection
Mophun has already been licensed by Sony Ericsson for a number of its high-end phones, and the technology also forms part of Nokia's N-Gage. Mophun games are device-independent, but we note that Synergenix offers the Mophun Vendor Signing Tool (VST), which allows titles to be locked to specific devices.
Whatever, the use of Mophun should ensure a broad range of games will be available when Gametrac launches. Some existing titles will no doubt use non-Mophun API calls, but for many games, conversion to the new console should be fairly straightforward.
Documents seen by The Register claim that "up to 100 different Java games" will be available at launch, via download or on SD cards.
GE hasn't said what "high-speed processor" Gametrac will use, but both Synergenix and Intrinsyc have close ties with Intel, suggesting XScale may be the chip Plextec builds into the hardware. Certainly an ARM-based device seems most likely.
GE's best known partner, perhaps, has nothing to do with the console. Last July, GE announced it was sponsoring the Jordan Formula One team throughout next year's season. Again, the deal is described as a "multi-million pound arrangement", and will see the Gametrac logo appear on Jordan's two race cars. Not that you'll be able to spot them on a vehicle travelling at around 200mph, but there you go.
When, where, how much?
Q2 2004 appears to be the current target, though we understand GE had originally been looking at a "Winter 2003" launch. Documents we've seen claim the Gametrac will be launched without a SIM for around £126 ($214), but will be offered by mobile phone networks Orange and T-Mobile for £60 ($101). We should stress that Gametrac Europe has not officially confirmed either the pricing or the network partners. Our call to GE for clarification was not returned.
A long list of games and a well-supported API doesn't ensure success. The original Pogo handheld was supposed to leverage widespread expertise in Flash graphics and interactives, but still failed to win mass consumer support.
Securing the support of Orange and T-Mobile will help, but the Gametrac will still be up against some very stiff competition, from Nokia's N-gage through Nintendo's GameBoy series to the upcoming Playstation Portable. Gametrac's GPS functionality is unique in this space, but its value is untested. Fighting for market share against those very well known and established brand may depend more Gametrac's low price than the features it offers. ®