Are tabletops the next massive gaming platform?

Gaming is huge by nearly any benchmark. With nearly 3 billion players and gaming revenues now exceeding that of the movie and sports industries combined, predicting what is next is a top priority. Mobile gaming, which was virtually zero a decade ago, has now climbed to half of the entire gaming market, establishing the touch interface as the de facto standard for over half of the world’s gamers. Given that humans are inherently social creatures who enjoy socializing around tables, why wouldn’t tabletop games, including “gang play” with 2 or more players on boards or fast action tables, become the next major platform opportunity?

Back in 2007, Microsoft sold the world on their initial “Surface” vision with the launch of the Surface Table (read “table” not “tablet”). During that period, more than 20 companies received funding to deliver touch-based gaming in the form of tables, game boards, and large tablet-like devices that would allow two (or more) players to collaborate, or compete, across the table from each other. Restaurant tables, and classroom desks were redesigned to provide both collaborative game experiences and learning via collaborative edutainment. Families and friends could join around a table to play board games and multi-player hockey or soccer games. The ultimate in fun social interactions would bring together friends and families for exciting, fast paced entertainment.

Unfortunately, none of these early products had the needed touch sensing or graphics performance to enable a rich gaming experience. Even the simplest hockey game proved too slow and could not accurately process a single fast-moving hand on the screen. Restaurants that deployed such tables soon discovered that drinks, elbows, spills, and other objects on the surface caused all manner of unpredictable touch results and system problems. Additionally, the very high price points and the sheer size and weight of the tabletop displays prevented mass adoption.

Fast forward to 2021 with enormous improvements in performance, size and price barriers eliminated (just look at the new generation of super slim TV displays), where are the tabletop game boards? Why have the leading gaming and PC companies left this massive tabletop opportunity untouched (pun intended)?

Technology obstacles offer some answers, but first let’s consider the key players and their challenges:

For Microsoft and Sony, the world’s leaders in console gaming, the focus is growth and maintaining their lead in consoles without including a display in their solutions. To them, the game controller is a key proprietary advantage while users are typically connected to their home television or PC monitor. While Microsoft also has an enormous base of PC gamers on Windows, they are typically focused on ultra high-speed graphics and super-fast gaming controllers that are more powerful than the consoles. Additionally, with Microsoft’s multiple launches of large Surface Tables and Surface Hub displays, a “once burned, twice shy” mentality further complicates their internal decision process surrounding new markets.

Apple, the acknowledged innovator and pioneer in touch technology for mobile devices through its introduction of the iPhone in 2007, has since not innovated by adding touch to anything larger than an iPad. They have avoided adding touch features to displays in their MacBook and iMac product lines, aside from a single Touchbar which is now being removed. Still, they drive a major portion of the touch gaming market through their iOS platform. Given Apple’s sheer size in owning more than 80% of the profits in the smartphone market, and their goal to lead and grow new multi-billion dollar market opportunities, we might expect they will want to lead (and own) the expansion into tabletop games. However, the volumes in tabletop products, at least initially, are not likely to meet Apple’s requirement to move the needle. They will likely wait for the market to evolve rather than jumping in as a pioneer. If they do wait, then the market defines the tabletop experience without them, they eventually launch late and risk being behind the curve in trying to meet expectations already set by their competitors. For large companies, paralysis is the typical net effect of such situations.

Google, who owns the mobile gaming platform for over two billion phones, has never done particularly well in hardware and do not want to compete against their customers (as clearly shown by their sale of the Motorola brand to Lenovo). Google’s mobile devices have led the industry with some of the fastest response times for touch and pen, so they clearly understand the importance of low latency. They could provide the Android OS support for such tabletops, but it would be a stretch to see them lead with both hardware and ecosystem support.

Samsung and LG both have strong motivation to drive new category demand for fast refresh OLED displays, while Amazon and Facebook are always looking for ways to move users eyes off of their Apple and Google dominated phones. Given the high social component of gaming, the winner will likely need to have a high “Social IQ” with a good understanding of software, content, and community dynamics. Winning the Tabletop Gaming platform requires a better, faster touch experience on large screens AND the ability to build a social infrastructure for the gaming community. This gives Facebook or Amazon a strong advantage over either Samsung or LG.

Finally, the primary reason the tabletop opportunity is still open has been… technical. Dedicated touch controllers have not been able to sense and process simple X and Y data fast enough on a large tabletop display to keep up with a single fast-moving touch, let alone 4 or more players touching with both hands simultaneously. The displays are ready for this market, especially OLEDs with their high-speed refresh. New graphics processors are also outstanding, delivering high speed, high resolution video to match the most exciting games. Unfortunately, the touch processors have lacked the ability to capture and process analog touch data fast enough. To further complicate the problem, analog noise from the display interferes with the touch system and the noise from the touch signals interferes with the display image. Because the human eye easily detects lag in the system, traditional voltage mode analog to digital convertors (ADCs) were unable to keep up with fast moving, multiplayer touches and high-speed object identification required for gaming. Simple condensation from a glass, small spills, and even spray cleaners on the screen surface caused early touch systems to go crazy.

SigmaSense has delivered the needed industry breakthrough with the availability of accurate, real-time, high fidelity data from current mode ADCs. The industry has used voltage mode ADCs in capacitive touch systems until recently and the move to current mode touch controllers eliminates the timing issues associated with scanning for an X/Y position of touch on the screen. Large touch systems are now being upgraded to perform fast capacitive imaging of all touches across the entire screen.

Finally, integration with high-end GPUs and fast-refresh OLED displays enables for the first time, a great tabletop gaming experience. Touch controls in some systems will deliver even faster response than what can be achieved with high-speed gaming mice. Water, and/or drink spills on the surface are now easily managed at high speeds so game play is unaffected even when a family dinner gets a little too exciting.

For tabletop displays, SigmaSense opens all new possibilities for gaming, including game piece recognition, pucks, and pens that use sophisticated image processing enabled by much faster data acquisition. The availability of high speed, high fidelity touch data has opened the door for tabletop gaming from 20 inches up to 100-inch tables with support for “gang play”, whether the gang is there to compete or to play as a team. Watching to see who wins this market will be just half the fun, the other half involves friends and family laughing and playing around their game boards. Four player game boards on the living room coffee table could capture prime consumer real estate in the home as the next major platform. SigmaSense is ready with the new generation touch solution that turns these products into true social gathering platforms.