How Project Fiona Works


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Discovery

At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, Razer -- a company known for developing computer gaming gear like mice and keyboards -- unveiled a unique device dubbed Project Fiona. Part tablet and part video game controller, Project Fiona drew crowds for being, well, as unusual as it sounds. Two cylindrical control grips that look a bit like PlayStationMovecontrollers flank the 10.1-inch screen, which includes touch support (like most tablets) and a full installation of Windows (unlike most tablets).

Project Fiona represents Razer's attempt to make PC gaming portable in a convenient form factor. Many PC gamers prefer to play with a keyboard and mouse, and Razer caters to them with the Razer Blade, a 17-inch gaming laptop packed with the powerful hardware and priced at $2800. Project Fiona tries to do something different: Ditch the keyboard in favor of video game console-style controls, while retaining the power of a gaming PC's internal components. And they want to do it for less than $1,000.

Razer debuted Project Fiona as a prototype at CES 2012 to gauge consumer interest before releasing a real product. If Razer does create a gaming tablet, it may be a very different beast from the device shown off in Las Vegas in January 2012. Project Fiona is not quite a tablet, not quite a gaming PC -- so let's take a look at how it mashes together both realms of technology.

Project Fiona's Tablet Design

While the central element of Project Fiona looks very much like other tablets, the unit is designed to appeal to gamers.
While the central element of Project Fiona looks very much like other tablets, the unit is designed to appeal to gamers.
Image courtesy Razer; "Assasin's Creed" ©2011 Ubisoft Entertainment.

Project Fiona's body closely resembles an Android tablet in more ways than one. The front is dominated by a 10.1-inch (25.7-centimeter) display and its black bezel. And unlike the typical gaming PC or laptop, that small body houses all of the hardware Razer needs to run games. Like a typical tablet, Fiona's surface is a capacitive touch screen. Project Fiona also includes a three-axis gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, and front- and rear-facing cameras. The biggest difference between Fiona and other tablets is the hardware and software beneath that screen.

At CES 2012, Project Fiona was running on the latest Intel Core i7 processor and the Windows 7 operating system. Razer didn't reveal most of the tablet's technical specifications because hardware like RAM, graphics processor and battery are likely to change before the device becomes a real product. Similarly, Razer said that the device would run Windows 8, which was still in development in January 2012. They did specify that the display resolution is 1280 by 800 pixels, a common resolution for 10.1-inch (25.7-centimeter) tablets.

Tablets are touch screen devices. They don't have physical keyboards, offer few buttons, and run software designed for taps, swipes and gestures. Windows 7 is not that kind of software: Though it does have touch screen support, it was designed first and foremost for keyboards and mice. Microsoft designed Windows 8 with a new user interface geared towards tablets as well as traditional desktops. To improve upon Windows 7's touch controls, Razer designed a custom touch UI for Project Fiona. It provides quick access to basics like installed games, a Web browser and music.

The tablet similarities end when you look beyond the display's bezel and notice the two cylindrical control grips affixed to Project Fiona's main body. Next, we'll look at how they differ from typical game controllers.

How Project Fiona Works

This view of the back of Project Fiona shows the way the controllers are attached, yet separate from the tablet body.
This view of the back of Project Fiona shows the way the controllers are attached, yet separate from the tablet body.
Image courtesy of Razer

Titlle: Project Fiona's Controllers

Project Fiona isn't Razer's first stab at creating video game controllers. The company sells the Onza, a controller designed for Xbox 360 and PC, and the Hydra, a motion control system a bit like the Nintendo Wii or PlayStation Move. The Hydra used magnetic motion sensing to detect the location and positioning of its two separate controllers, designed to be held simultaneously in the left and right hands. To complement motion controls, each Hydra controller featured an analog thumbstick, triggers and face buttons much like traditional controllers. Much of Hydra's design -- minus the magnetic motion sensing -- made its way into Project Fiona.

Fiona's two controllers are rounded cylinders, but they bulge slightly at the top to make space for two trigger buttons designed to be pressed by players' index fingers. The triggers are embedded in the backs of the controllers. On the front, two thumbsticks will offer the typical dual-stick controls that you'd find on a PS3 or Xbox 360 (just imagine one of those controllers being cut in half).

The button layout is Project Fiona's biggest departure from traditional game controls: While both Sony and Microsoft's controllers use a cross layout of four buttons, Fiona has four buttons on each side of the tablet. And they're not arranged the way gamers expect: Two buttons are stacked on each side, with a bit of empty space in between the two columns. Those buttons are numbered 1 through 4 on each side. Two less visible black buttons -- likely equivalent to "Start" and "Select" on traditional controllers -- are placed below the two columns.

Project Fiona's controllers look like handlebars for the tablet body, but everything about the design is subject to change between concept and final product. Razer may change the button layout to mimic other game controllers, but having four more face buttons than the Xbox 360 or PS3 could give Project Fiona some nice customizability when it comes to PC games.

At least, assuming Project Fiona becomes a real device. Can Razer really release a powerful gaming PC in tablet form for under $1,000? And would anyone buy it?

Project Fiona From Concept to Reality

Can Fiona successfully bring gaming to the tablet? Razer may always back off of the launch plan for this project and chalk their CES model up to market research.
Can Fiona successfully bring gaming to the tablet? Razer may always back off of the launch plan for this project and chalk their CES model up to market research.
Image courtesy Razer; ©2010 Red 5 Studios

At CES 2011, a full year before anyone outside of Razer knew Project Fiona existed, the company unveiled another prototype device called the RazerSwitchblade. The Switchblade was a miniature gaming laptop PC with its own unique twist. Instead of a typical keyboard, the Switchblade boasted a 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) array of keys with embedded OLEDs. The keys were designed to be fully customizable for different games, and the screen under each would change based on its function.

The system was designed to run Windows 7, but it only had an Intel Atom processor inside -- the same type of processor commonly used in netbooks, which are fine for light Web browsing, but poorly equipped for gaming. Here's the point: Despite all the attention Razer generated for the Switchblade at CES, it opted not to release the Switchblade as a real product. The Razer Blade laptop integrated that OLED keyboard concept into its design, but the 17-inch (43.2-centimeter) gaming laptop is a much easier sell to gamers than a tiny portable gaming machine with an expensive keyboard.

So, will Project Fiona become a real product? While Razer sounded enthusiastic about Project Fiona in CES interviews, and explained that elements of the design could change after the concept stage, they never confirmed that it would, indeed, be a real product. The Switchblade set a precedent for them to show off something wildly experimental at CES. Producing a viable final project won't be easy, either: The powerful components needed for gaming will be challenging to fit into a tablet chassis, and batteries take up a great deal of space in mobile devices.

Project Fiona will need a very big battery to last for longer than 2 to 3 hours of gaming on a single charge. Powerful gaming laptops often cost $1,500 or more, while Razer is shooting for a $1,000 price point. And tablets typically cost $500 or less, which will make a hybrid device like Project Fiona a difficult sell to the tablet market. If Razer does release a gaming tablet, it likely won't look exactly like the Fiona we know.

Author's Note

Project Fiona was one of the most interesting devices I saw at CES 2012. It was interesting because it wasn't exactly real. It was there, and it worked, but it spent most of its time under glass and is in no way guaranteed to be a real product down the road. Razer may abandon the idea or turn it into something else. Selling a gaming tablet won't be easy, but I dig the concept. Who wants touch controls when you can have the real thing?

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Sources

  • Hollister, Sean. "Razer Project Fiona gaming tablet hands-on video and pictures." Jan. 10, 2012. (July 10, 2012) http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/10/2697729/razer-project-fiona-gaming-tablet-first-hands-on
  • Shanklin, Will. "Razer's Project Fiona tablet plays Skyrim on ultra-high settings." Jan. 13, 2012. (July 10, 2012) http://www.geek.com/articles/games/razers-project-fiona-tablet-plays-skyrim-on-ultra-high-settings-20120113/
  • Razerzone.com. "Project Fiona." (July 9, 2012) http://www.razerzone.com/projectfiona/tech_specs
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