Moore’s Law and Handhelds.

Joe Yang - Can increased processing power make dedicated portables obsolete? This article considers whether potential graphical singularities can be a driving force behind gimmick-based innovation in portables. Retina display (the broad term) is already feasible, and though it isn’t available to consoles, graphical performance is reaching a position where marginal utility from potential hyperrealism is decreasing. Each generational leap of consoles is taking longer, the differences are less visually impressive, and consoles are more likely to depend on integrative interaction rather than powerful visual fidelity.

Two questions underlie this article: is there the possibility for a graphical singularity, and how can a graphical singularity harm the market of dedicated portable consoles?

The idea underpinning this concern is Moore’s Law. According to this law, the literal rule is that the number of transistors on computer chips will double every 18 months. Though not directly related to video games, Moore’s Law brings up a considerable challenge: growth is exponential. Though the variable for time is constant, development is based upon the value of the preceding processor. The leaps and bounds associated with game development can be attributed to similar technological growth that can be understood through Moore’s Law.

Therefore, the law is less of a literal phenomenon that encompasses the challenge in this article; rather, it is symbolic. Moore’s Law outlines technological growth in a vacuum, and the challenge arises when we take the basic ideas behind Moore’s Law and apply it to products, consumer society, and social behavior. The result is we can quickly find ourselves outpaced by our own innovations. In this sense, Moore’s Law opens the floodgates for ‘rules’ of technological development, such as Kryder’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns. In short, greater gains are made in incremental innovation over time.

One concern is the idea behind retina display. Though people are familiar with Retina Display as the term coined by Apple to describe pixel density greater than perceivable at a normal viewing, retina display in this context is about a graphical singularity. Hyperrealism, though still a few generations away, is nevertheless inevitable. As pixel density increases and processing power grows, the cost for a console’s ability to mimic photorealistic environments decreases. The graphical singularity is the point where the visual fidelity of a video game is indiscernible from real life, its pixel density per inch is above the average viewing distance for a human retina, and where the uncanny valley is no longer a central concern for character movement.

This generation, next generation, and the next generation may not be near a theoretical singularity, but discarding the idea of a singularity within the average gamer’s (the average age is 30, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2011 industry fact) lifetime goes against the accelerating returns that have defined industry innovation for the previous three decades.

How does this affect dedicated portables? In this article, a dedicated portable is a handheld designed for the primary purpose of playing video games. Whereas iPhones and Android phones are considered handhelds in their own right, they are not dedicated hardware: the primary purchase of an iPhone and an Android is for texting, calling, and browsing on the go. For video game handhelds such as the Playstation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS, the situation is a bit different. The primary selling point of these consoles is to play video games, with media and entertainment programs embedded in their operating systems to facilitate operations similar to smartphones.

So how does the singularity come into play? Graphical advances on handhelds become a cost in development as portable gaming becomes one of a myriad of functions. Dedicated handhelds can face considerable challenge in the future as costs for development in hardware and software for games increase to deal with a growing standard of performance while secondary features suffer. This can put them at a disadvantage against smartphones, which develop incrementally and less radically than handhelds for gaming, but offset that downside by introducing a considerably larger bevy of alternative tasks.

Though handhelds are still far off from home consoles (and PCs even moreso) when we think of reaching the singularity, the pressure to improve graphical performance can press developers to improve the fidelity of their games. Assuming the singularity as 1, and console’s graphical fidelity approaching as X approaches 1, eventually by the limitations imbued in the ‘end of history’ of retina display will create a state of X = 1.

Handhelds, in comparison, lag behind home entertainment consoles in processing power. However, this is not to marginalize the efforts associated with handheld innovation. Handhelds of today outmuscle the most formidable home consoles a decade and a half ago. Handhelds, in other words, are relatively less powerful than their home counterparts, but still follow the rule of approaching the singularity. Eventually, handhelds will also theoretically become capable of surpassing the retina litmus test.

Though home consoles may survive as dedicated entertainment systems, handhelds have considerable competition in the form of smartphones. With a larger market for cheap, quality games, smartphones create downward pressure on the prices of portable games. As a result, dedicated handhelds must cater to an increasingly puritanical market of impressive, portable graphics to offset the cheaper, yet equally immersive smartphone market of gaming.

The role of unspoken obligations can be a problem. As new releases for video games remain expensive compared to competitively low prices for games on smartphone marketplaces, these pricier games must compensate by adding some sort of functionality or increased visual capability. As a result, gimmicks offset the associated cost with graphical developments.

As the difference in graphical improvement shrinks with each generation, handhelds will feel greater pressure from smartphones. If the difference between home and portable consoles reach zero (a theoretical possibility), then developers have no incentive to create games for portables because of downward pressure on costs. The obligation to sell portables cheaper than home consoles with no noticeable difference in visual fidelity could be calamitous to the portable market because of the associated opportunity cost.

Of course, this article is ridden with several presumptions. What’s important about the thought project of Moore’s Law and handhelds is that processing power is a central actor for alternatives to traditional controller-based gaming, and at the same time, can show, ceteris paribus, the effect obligations have on downward pricing pressure. Handhelds can survive, and analysis is ultimately based on information acquired from hindsight. Furthermore, projecting rapid advancements in computing technology and how it relates to innovation is to broad for this article. The central concern is to illustrate factor isolation and how that can distort perceptions of successful versus unsuccessful trends.

Likewise, this assumes the trend of home consoles as substitutes for alternative media hubs. The case of the Ouya and the Gamestick reveals Moore’s Law is a multidirectional force, decreasing costs for less established projects to compete in the market. Handhelds could become so powerful, in fact, that they could get rid of home consoles entirely! If cloud computing and cloud gaming is revealed to be more than a fad, than this could very well be a different future.


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