By Harro Ten Wolde
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Chip makers are battling fiercely to satisfy the appetite of lookalike smartphones and tablets trying to differentiate themselves by claiming supremacy in gaming graphics, previously the preserve of PCs and consoles.
To try to steal a march on its rivals, Qualcomm has added a team of 35 developers to create games that test new processing chips to their maximum capacity and show app developers the brave new world they can conquer.
"It is not to bring (the games) to the market, but to show what the opportunities are," Raj Talluri, Qualcomm's head of product management, said at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
"With our new processors you will see more high resolution, high complexity, true 3D games on mobile."
The challenge for the likes of Qualcomm, Intel and NVIDIA is to make chips that are faster and can process clearer graphics, but which also use less power and cost less, making them suitable for as many phones and tablets as possible.
"The best is yet to come, Talluri said. "Right now the games are good, but I think we still haven't taken advantage of everything we have."
The improved technology will enable phones and tablets to offer online games more sophisticated than hits such as Rovio's Angry Birds and Zynga's FarmVille, which have drawn many new users to gaming.
New chips should allow gamers to play against each other live and put graphics more usually associated with the likes of the Call of Duty series on mobile and tablet screens as well as consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox.
Global revenues from online games will reach $35 billion in 2017, from $19 billion in 2012, and account for 40 percent of the market, according to research firm DFC Intelligence.
Following that money is the smartphone applications processor market, which hit $3.8 billion in the third quarter of 2012, up 58 percent from a year earlier, says Strategy Analytics.
The main battleground, however, is the graphics processing unit (GPU), which generates the ever-more realistic pictures on screen.
"Graphics capability is really important," said Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight. "All the phones just look the same now ... You need to differentiate on the experience."
Wood's research shows that gaming is one of the primary activities for tablet users.
Adding to the attraction of smartphones and tablets are "mirroring programs" such as Miracast and Apple's AirPlay Mirroring, which connect to television screens and dispense with the need for a separate gaming console.
The other battleground is latency, or the response time between the movement of the device and the action on the screen. To cut the delay, the chip needs more power, which can lead it to overheat the device.
"(Our new chip) gives the power you need without burning in your hands," said Jean-Marc Chery, of chip maker STMicroelectronics.
Qualcomm is also making lower-end versions of its graphic chips for cheaper phones, broadening the potential audience and luring young users who are often heavy gamers but cannot afford high-end smartphones.
"The low end is where the biggest audience for gaming is, said Qualcomm's Talluri. "That's why mobile and 3D gaming has only just started taking off."
(Editing by David Goodman)