While it may look like your average Android tablet affixed with a pair of button-festooned handlebars, beneath the shimmering screen of Razer's Project Fiona lurks the beating heart of a high-powered gaming PC. Are we looking at the future of portable gaming?
Project Fiona's debut today a proof-of-concept design at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is part of Razer's calculated strategy to stand out from the annual parade of recolored smart phones and Android tablets. Last year they drew the attention of gamers with the Razer Switchblade, essential a handheld gaming PC. While elements of the Switchblade later appeared in the design for the company's $US2800 Razer Blade gaming laptop, the Switchblade itself never surfaced as an actual product.
In a pre-CES 2012 interview last week Razer CEO and creative director Min-Liang Tan told me that while the Project Fiona pictured here is merely a proof-of-concept, the company plans on shipping an actual product by the end of the year, and the product they plan on shipping is far more than a tablet PC with handlebars.
"I love my iPad," Min-Liang Tan told me as he began explaining Project Fiona to me late last week. "It's great for Words with Friends or Plants Vs. Zombies, but it's pretty much only good for casual gaming. You get a high score, you blast it out to your friends and say 'Hey, can you beat my Bejeweled score?' That's tablet gaming."
PC gaming, Tan explained, is quite different. It's evolved a great deal since the days he and his brother would sit side-by-side at a computer keyboard playing Top Gun. "It's very networked; very visceral; very real-time."
Therein lies the impetus behind Project Fiona. "We want to bring that sort of virtual social engagement back to a face-to-face experience. We want to get three or four guys sitting on a couch playing head-to-head against each other," Tan said.
It's a noble goal, but why not simply utilise a standard tablet PC? Why create a special dedicated gaming machine?
"PC gaming is impossible on a tablet," said Tan. "We looked and that, focused on that and now Project Fiona is the only tablet in the world designed specifically for PC gaming."
What sets Project Fiona apart from other tablet computers?
For one, the system is powered by the latest generation of Intel's Core i7 processors, making it quite the powerful little machine. More importantly it helps ensure that any PC-native game will work with Project Fiona right out of the box without any tweaking, or as Tan put it, "It's got the largest library of gaming content in the world."
It's a bold statement, but there's a certain truth to it. Project Fiona is indeed a full-fledged PC, and while the full final specs are yet to be determined, the Intel processor is a good start. When the final project ships at the end of this year it will be running a full version of the tablet-friendly Windows 8. Players will be able to load up their Steam library, download their favourite games, and go to town.
The "handlebars" on either side of the unit act just like plugging in a Wired Xbox controller would on the average PC. You've got thumb sticks, buttons, triggers — all the ingredients needed to play today's more console-friendly PC titles. And when a game requires a keyboard? That's where Project Fiona's hybrid interface comes into play.
By mixing a multi-touch screen and an accelerometer with a traditional game pad, Tan says game developers willing to take a little more time will be able to develop special features that take advantage of Project Miriam's unique design.
So how does it play?
"It's a totally different experience," Tan said. "Usually you're holding a controller in your hand and looking up at the screen. Now it's in your face." That more visceral experience will be further enhanced by full THX-certified Dolby home theatre sound (a first for tablet PCs) and integrated force feedback, which isn't a term you hear bandied about all that often anymore.
Again, Project Fiona is simply a proof-of-concept, but Razer is definitely bringing a Fiona-like product to market by the end of this year. The design may change, the handlebars may warp and change, but a Window 8 running PC gaming tablet will drop by the end of this year with a target MSRP of under $US1000.
"The whole point here is we want to create an experience where people having a rough day can take a quick break, play some PC games, shout at each other, and get back to work."