OnLive: Cloud Gaming for the masses

OnLive is a new service which delivers games to you via the Internet. It was shown at E3 this year to much criticisms due to the technical challenges that many people say is too complex to be solved by today’s technology. The way it works is like this: OnLive install games on their server and then streams it to your computer over the Internet, so you experience the latest and greatest games with just a normal computer.

HD Quality Games

The problem is mainly due to the claim that OnLive is able to deliver ‘HD quality’ games in real time over the Internet. Many write this off as impossible due to the size of the video stream that has to be pushed though the Internet. It is a complex problem because traditionally, video streaming sites build up a ‘buffer’ of video before they start playing them, so that any hiccups on the Internet such as lost or dropped packets can be smoothed over with the buffer. With video games, no such buffer exists as everything on screen is a result of the user interaction.


Video Compression

The first method to try and tackle this problem is using video compression, which essentially squeezes the information so that it can transfer faster. The problem with this approach is that video games is one of the types of content to compress due to the fast-changing camera angles, explosions and other effects which makes it difficult to compress very well. Common techniques that work well for film, such as analyzing the differences between frames then only sending the information of changes between the frames cannot be adapted for video games.


The second problem is latency, or lag. Interestingly, even if you have the fastest connection on the planet, there are still some inescapable physical limitations which will increase the lag of the signals (the game video stream, the time between when you click on the mouse and that information reaching the server, etc). First is of course distance; the further you are from the server, the longer the information has to travel and the higher the lag. Furthermore, the signal processing inside the modem is finite and measurable. Then there is lag from having to compress and decompress the video, and finally, as the information travel from the server to you and visa versa, it will be routed through switches which also introduce some lag.

Chaotic Internet

Another problem is the inherent nature of a chaotic internet. Packets of information arrive to your computer in a disorderly manner, sometimes later than another, sometimes out of order and this disorganization mean that there can be a time when the game absolutely needs the information in order to display the next frame, which simply isn’t available. The way OnLive plans to solve the problem is to provide an adaptive compressive technology which changes the compression algorithm depending on network conditions. The technology provides some great streams that look great in motion, but might not look as nice when paused. However, some people would want to pause their games, for instances like taking a picture of a great achievement or reviewing sometimes. Therefore, when the server compresses the video stream, it is actually doing two different types of compression, one is the adaptive compression and the other does a high quality compression for each frame which is then simultaneously recorded if you need to recall it.

The technology is great because it allows you to play great new games without having to own very powerful gaming PCs, as all you need is an OnLive microconsole. With the trend of computers getting smaller and less powerful like netbooks, OnLive is a great service.