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Onlive remote gaming isn't new

GDC 2009 But is it the best so far
Thu Mar 26 2009, 11:38

ONLIVE IS MAKING waves talking about streaming games, and some are falling over themselves wondering how the magic happens. It is not magic, has been done many times before, but this is by far the most accomplished version ever shown.

The concept is simple, we told you about it yesterday, and it doesn't do anything more complex than render 720p rez games remotely. This isn't exactly an easy thing to do, but AMD's Fusion Render Cloud did the same thing at CES, and there are several LAN based ones like the Zotac boxes shown at CeBIT which do it more locally.

Basically, Onlive took several existing concepts, redid some of the parts for better performance, and put out the most polished package to date. It is something even a console gamer could potentially use, it could really be that simple.

The problem with running games remotely is always latency, if you are driving and turn your car, if the car doesn't react for three or four seconds, you will eat wall quickly. The generally-assumed latency that a human can perceive is 85ms. Anything less, you probably won't notice, so that is the bar Onlive has to hurdle.

First up, they made a proprietary compression algorithm that they won't talk much about yet. It compresses things sub-frame, and adds under 1ms of latency. Things are good so far. The lag between controller and computer, basically how long it takes for a button press to register, adds about 5ms more. The killer, ISP latency, it is between 20-50ms if you are on a good link.

That said, the worst 'official' case is under 60ms, 75 per cent or so of what you can perceive. So far, so good. Then again, with the Net, there is no such thing as 'worst' case, your mileage will vary, especially if you are on a shared connection or a cable modem. We won't talk about Comcast's packet shenanigans either, curse their black eyes.

On the cloud side, Onlive runs the game, and has a bunch of hooks into the system. The company won't be very specific about how they do this, it is their secret sauce, but the game itself is unmodified code. There are currently two US data centres, east and west coast.

The stream itself is then sent over standard TCP/IP to the user. A high rez 720p stream will need a 5Mbps connection, it maxes out at 4Mbps data rate plus ISP marketing safety margin. A standard def stream will only need a 2Mbps link, 1.5Mbps stream plus ISP exaggeration factor.

On the receiving side, you can use either a browser plugin or a 'microconsole'. The plugin is currently for PC and Macs with Linux under consideration if the market warrants. The microconsole is a little box with a USB port for the controller and HDMI outs. It looks like a smooshed pack of cigarettes with a PS3 controller wired in.

Onlive microconsole

The silicon in the console is proprietary and there are no specs to be had on it. One nice feature is the compression algorithm is flexible and heavily server loaded. Compression is intensive, decompression far less so, and it can be done serially or in parallel. The light-duty parallel bit strongly hints that the console chip is a multi-core part, and is said to have custom hardware compression blocks.

There are actually two streams sent out at once, the one you play and a higher-rez version. The play stream is adaptive and varies compression and data rates on the fly, based on network transit conditions. The high-rez version is not playable or really interactive, it is meant for 'brag clips' or filming of the session. Think of it as what the spectators see on the big screen at a Lan party. It is multicast for efficiency whereas the play stream is unicast.

Pricing isn't set, nor is it going to be really done by Onlive. The company will OEM the boxes and run the cloud or let you run your own should you want it. You are much more likely to see an Onlive box with your cable company's branding than theirs, and the pricing will (shudder) also be done by the cable company.

In the end, Onlive has the first end-to-end complete package for streaming games that looks viable. Nothing is particularly new, nothing is particularly exciting, but it is all done seemingly right. Without playing with it under live Net conditions, you can't say how well it really works, but for now, it looks to be not only functional, but best of breed. Keep an eye on it. µ



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