In Theory: What's inside Project Cafe?

Digital Foundry analyses the rumours and puts forward informed suggestions.

Six weeks away from E3 and we now know that Nintendo will announce its high-definition successor to the Wii at the Los Angeles event. It's a new piece of hardware that the rumour mill tells us will not only offer a superior spec to the current crop of HD consoles, but will also change the way we play our games. Based on comments in Nintendo's recent announcement, the new hardware could be with us within a year.

We've been aware of various "Wii HD" rumours for a while now, and have some perspective on the various leaks that have appeared just recently. Photos of what appear to be Project Cafe presentation slides, stealthily snapped using a mobile telephone, have been hotly debated on the internet. Are they genuine? Are they fake? What of the increasing torrent of rumours describing power significantly in excess of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3?

One thing that appears to be self-evident is that, once again, the controller is the core of the next Nintendo experience. The Cafe hardware itself appears to operate either as a conventional console tethered to a TV, or else as a lounge-based hub, beaming out gameplay to gamers effectively playing on handheld units with short-range links to the unit. Almost like an entirely home-based OnLive, if you will.

No longer will there be arguments over who's using the HDTV. If someone wants to watch TV, conceivably the player could simply switch over to gaming on Cafe's controller, with rumours suggesting a six-inch widescreen display with resolution in the EDTV-esque 800x480 area - the kind of display utilised by larger sat-navs. It's been described as "an iPad with buttons", but a large joypad with integrated touch-screen is more in line with what we've been hearing from our sources.

Obviously there are other benefits to this configuration. Streaming could be used to send player-specific information, or used to de-clutter the main display by moving HUD information across to the satellite screen. However, applications in this scenario would probably be quite limited. Most HUD info typically needs to be easily accessible to the player, and shifting focus between two screens is not a user-friendly experience.

Cafe's video streaming is a potentially very cool technology. The question is, how could it work and what transmission format could be used?

On the one hand, we already have a working example: PS3's Remote Play, where the framebuffer is shrunk down, encoded and beamed over WiFi to PSP. In theory, then, gameplay could be transmitted to anywhere in the house, and a Wireless-N connection could conceivably handle the bandwidth.

However, two issues here suggest this isn't such a good idea: latency would be introduced by encoding and decoding the video signal, plus there would be a significant degradation in image quality brought about by image compression. Bearing in mind how many Nintendo titles operate at 60Hz, gameplay would suffer a drop in quality were the platform holder to adopt this strategy. Nintendo wants technology to enhance the way we play games, not to detract from it.

The other solution would be something along the lines of WirelessHD, which offers a spec level essentially identical to HDMI beamed out from the console with enough bandwidth to support 1080p at 60Hz (and presumably, by extension, four remote screens on Cafe controllers). We've already seen this deployed on the latest iteration of Alienware's M17x laptop and it's said to offer zero latency and a ten-metre range. Nintendo is all about refactoring existing technology in an innovative fashion, and here we have a template that could be relatively easily adapted.

This is pretty advanced tech though and in concert with integrated touch-screens, we can expect additional Cafe controllers to be significantly more expensive than what we're used to - and we'd be hugely surprised if the unit shipped with more than one pad/tablet.

However, bearing in mind that at one point Orange was selling an Android-powered mobile phone with an 800x480 AMOLED touch-screen display for less than 100 (the Orange San Francisco/ZTE Blade), you can imagine that, with additional economies of scale, Nintendo should be able to make these far less complex controllers fairly cheaply, and still factor in a healthy profit margin.

Of course, a third option is that Cafe controllers could be wired, tethered to the console. Unwieldy and a retrograde step in many ways, but it would resolve the streaming issue in a cost-effective manner and it would also take care of another issue: running a touch-screen display on a wireless controller is going to require battery power way in excess of the requirements of the current-generation joypads and wands.

So what of the core hardware make-up of the machine? Rumours we have not been able to independently confirm are suggesting a triple-core PowerPC processor similar to the Xbox 360's, though we would like to believe that, in the five years since Xenon first shipped, refinements have been made to the design that would increase processing efficiency even if clock speed remains in the 3.2GHz territory.

Going for higher clockspeeds is an option, but would increase cooling costs and could impact on the unit's reliability. A smarter CPU design simply makes more sense, especially bearing in mind how key elements of Xenon's design are inefficient or lacking (onboard cache utilisation for example).

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