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Business - Written by on Friday, March 27, 2009 15:29 - 6 Comments

Gaming pushes frontier of cloud computing


Onlive.com just announced an interesting twist on cloud computing applied to gaming. See NYTimes article for a snapshot or check their press conference for the full details.

In a nutshell: power-hungry video games are run on a server far away, and then high-definition video of gameplay is piped over the internet back to the person playing the game. What that means is that games like Crysis (which are virtually unplayable on anything but a high-power PC) can be enjoyed on a low power laptop… or even piped directly to a TV with the help of a small box that can do the video decompression.

…think of it as inserting the Internet between a computer’s video output plug and the computer screen. Here’s their trailer/demo video:


The enemy of such a system is “lag” of course – any small delay induced in the video compression/decompression or via Internet transmission will kill first person shooter experiences. These are people that like 60 frames per second after all. But OnLive says it can combat that via the fastest video compression I’ve ever heard of (single digit milliseconds). To be honest, that’ sounds too low to believable – I don’t think Cisco’s telepresence system approaches that.  But if it really is anywhere close to that good, they’ve accomplished something spectacular.


It’s really interesting how most Internet-delivered multiplayer games start from the premise that you have lots of smart hardware and a narrow pipe. A lot of computing power goes into contructing and rendering physics and virtuals worlds that come out of those pipes. Onlive’s disruptive approach assumes the opposite. It assumes “dumb” hardware at the other end, but a fat pipe. That way it transmits a ton of “dumb” video pixels that can be displayed anywhere.  That’s not entirely the case of course, since there’s gotta be a ton of “smart” work going in in that video compression/decompression hardware, but it does give pause on how much smarts we really need at the edge of the cloud. It’s great to see OnLive take a stab at delivering games on demand – it creates interesting possibilities for controling piracy, try-before-buy, or even delivering a new breed of high-res games that even the highest end machines are incapable of.


But this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the larger possibilities for delivering cloud computing.  Games are just the beginning, the same model of delivery can be applied to anything that hits a computer screen. Regardless of whether OnLive itself succeeds, this is definitely an important turning point in our computing model.


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Mar 28, 2009 5:49

The virtual box is going to suffer a round-trip lag from keyboard through the network to the server then through compression and decompression plus another network trip back again. I can’t see the whole round trip being less than 50 milliseconds.

Lag is OK providing that everyone playing the game has close to equal lag (so it is fair). If you mix players running on the virtual gaming box with people running on real gaming boxes then players are going to get grumpy about the unfairness.

That being said, most hard core gamers buy a very expensive box but probably only use it on average for a few hours a day and it becomes worthless in a couple of years when technology moves forward. Virtual game machines in a “cloud” environment can spread the usage across timezones.

Mar 28, 2009 21:12

One can envision a future when even the processing is done in the cloud. What do you have at home? Input devices and a screen. That’s it. Your work (or play) is just the same as today except that the computer power is somewhere else. Is this the better solution? Well, it does diminish the current waste through rapid hardware obsolescence. No BSDs. No reboots. No upgrades. Less power consumption. You have better data protection. You have unlimited storage and it doesn’t use multiple drives (Example: if I buy a film, I don’t need the external drive to store it on and the server doesn’t need as many copies as there are clients as one copy is enough.) I see companies (IBM, Apple, Microsoft…) competing on the software and hardware end, selling the fastest, most reliable experience for a basic monthly fee. Third-party software is a module you buy access to. (The end of constant upgrades in pro software would be welcome!) With ultra fast data transmission (fiber optics to the home) it might be something foreseeable. I hope.

Mathias Hellman
Mar 29, 2009 17:01

Great post, great service. I look forward to see it on the market. One dimension which is seems forgotten when it comes to cloud computing is piracy. Piracy is a a quite big problem for gaming and software, and by putting the software on the cloud you have created a new control mechanism. I would like to see some more technical discussion regarding that.

Great blog! Keep the good work up.


Alan Majer
Mar 31, 2009 9:14

Cool, some very thoughtful comments…

Tel, I agree, 50 milleseconds might be as good as we could realistically expect (for today), even assuming almost no loss in hardware before it hits the network. Games might still be very playable at that speed though, but as you say any differences in lag would create an unfair advantage.

Twowan, great examples of advantages of cloud processing. I also like the idea that there isn’t expensive hardware sitting on someone’s desktop that doesn’t get used for most of the day (or night). Great way to put that processing power to use in a cloud setting to optimize it full-time.

Mathias, you’re right, piracy is probably one of the biggest reasons to move over to this model. MMORPGs really benefit from this, so now maybe single player will too. …then you just have to worry about shared user accounts and/or hacked accounts, or accounts that are bought/sold. But those seem much easier to contend with. Wonder if there are also new risks with similar technology applied in a P2P setting though – end users serving up the games they host on their machines to allow others to play them for free – a bit like webex desktop sharing. People are most certainly going to try to hack the system right away.

David Cameron
Mar 31, 2009 9:44

I was recently introduced to http://quakelive.com which allows you to play quake inside the browser (you have to download a plugin, just like you would download an ActiveX plugin). It’s an addictive game, and the idea behind it is pretty cool as well. It’s currently in Beta if you want to have a try.


Alan Majer
Mar 31, 2009 10:04

David, great example. I’m definitely going to give it a shot!

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