Material Gains
Meeting Gamers’ Demands Has Made Life Better for All
If you want to know where tech is going, watch the kids.
Video game sales were valued at $79 billion in 2017, larger than the global PCB market and growing at about 14% per annum. As far as gaming hardware is concerned, combined sales of pure game consoles and high-performing PC graphics cards for gaming generate about $50 billion each year.

Short product lifetimes mean gaming hardware is a constant revenue driver. In addition, gamers’ demands for more lifelike experiences have driven rapid technological change, including the development of dedicated high-performance graphics processing units (GPUs), which first emerged in the late 1990s.

The GPU was initially conceived to boost 3-D graphics performance, taking on specific workloads such as triangle calculation. As GPU capabilities have increased, game designers have increased the complexity of their scenes to ensure ever-greater realism. Ultimately, of course, the benefits of this “arms race” have transcended the gaming community: GPUs are now found to be remarkably adept at taking on performance-hungry workloads such as AI acceleration and blockchain mining, tasks that much of today’s world depends on but that could barely have been on researchers’ radars when the first GPU chips hit the market.

The gaming industry can also take a great deal of credit for the development of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR). Although Google failed to enthuse the general public to live routinely in augmented reality with its Glass experiment, industries are now embracing the technology to gain competitive advantages in areas such as production assembly and logistics. AR headsets can make perfect sense in a working context. Having live instructions such as how to assemble a mechanism, or the correct torque for specific fixings, presented directly in the field of view – just when needed and in the correct sequence – is not only faster than checking against a hard-copy instruction book but also greatly reduces opportunities for human error.

Virtual reality headsets are becoming more affordable, and there is more choice, too, as manufacturers differentiate their ranges from entry-level to high-end. Now, developers of professional tools are utilizing high-performance VR engines originally built to power realistic gaming experiences. They are being used to create immersive new apps for purposes such as medical training, athletic performance analysis, product design, and remote equipment maintenance.

It’s not difficult to understand the benefits to be gained from practicing within a realistic, digital simulation before beginning a risky surgical procedure on a real patient. Or being able to visualize every aspect of a component or product and assess form, fit and function, and to quickly make changes and assess their impact, before committing to build even a first prototype. A further step is to take advantage of virtual reality in conjunction with other technologies such as digital twin to create live simulations of equipment in the field – such as a jet engine or power station – that are continuously updated with real-time data and allow experts to “walk around” digitally to identify potential problems or areas where the design could be improved.

Conversely, mobile gamers can thank the communications industry for forthcoming improvements to their online experiences. I’ve mentioned 5G in this column several times because it will profoundly change the way almost all of us work, live and play. For gamers, low-latency communication will transform their experiences by simultaneously enabling faster action and more sophisticated contexts, while also alleviating the frustration of games lost due to connection problems that always seem to occur at a crucial moment.

At the nexus of gaming and the real world, eSports is driving the emergence of a whole new kind of sports hero. Professional teams, such as soccer teams, are embracing this field not only to generate publicity for their brand but also as a standalone revenue center. Thousands of spectators join eSports events, both live at the venues where they are played and online, so there are potentially huge worldwide audiences.

A key enabler underlying all this is the continued exponential increase in computing performance achieved through developments in large-scale silicon integration. Although we now know simply shrinking the feature size to the next process node can no longer maintain progress along the lines of Moore’s Law, techniques such as 3-D die stacking are being developed to continue increasing the number of transistors on-chip and the peak performance capability of future generations of processors.

All this, of course, challenges the PCB industry to provide new products and materials compatible with the increasing signal speeds into and out of the chip, and across high-bandwidth external memory interfaces. We need to keep developing advanced low-loss materials to minimize the heating effects high-frequency signals can have on the substrate, just as much as we need them to ensure adequate signal integrity at such high speeds.

It’s not just the patience of gamers at stake, but the solutions the world needs to continue increasing the quality of healthcare, raising industrial productivity, maintaining trust in the internet and our financial systems, and myriad other improvements we all hope new technology will make possible.

Alun Morgan
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.