OnLive, a Palo Alto, CA-based startup wants to do away with gaming consoles, game resellers, and the need to buy any more expensive graphics chips. Today the company announced a service that lets any computer run the sorts of graphics-intensive video games traditionally reserved for high-end gaming systems. Games can also be played on a TV using a small device offered by the company that connects a television to a broadband Internet connection.
The intense computation needed to render each game happens remotely, in a specialized server farm with thousands of computers crunching numbers. But critical to the success of the venture will be a number of new compression algorithms developed by the company to let even the most graphics-intense games–including the realistic first-person shooter Crysis–render on a player’s screen in real time.
Perlman, who helped develop the QuickTime video compression format while at Apple, says, “You don’t need a high-end PC to run these games. The all-digital distribution means that you’ll never need to upgrade the hardware in your home.”
The idea of playing video games via the Internet is nothing new, of course. Companies such as Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo offer online services that let players collaborate and compete over a broadband connection. But these games are still tied to their companies’ respective game consoles. World of Warcraft, a popular, massively multiplayer online game, streams content to a player’s computers via an Internet connection. But, as any player knows, one of the biggest problems with the game is that players must often wait for the on-screen visuals to catch up to their instructions.
“You still need a pretty respectable PC to run World of Warcraft,” says George Dolbier, CTO at IBM’s gaming division. “Games need to be very responsive to user so when you push a button, that game better react instantaneously; the big technical problem is when you push a button at home and it’s actually running at a computer potentially thousands of miles away, there’s going to be a lag,” Dolbier says. “Solving that problem has been a major challenge that Rearden has been aggressively tackling for some time.”
Perlman believes that OnLive’s compression technology can solve this problem. Most of the game processing and compression occurs where the powerful hardware resides: inside data centers with specialized graphics-processing units. Still, while compression schemes for video need only to compress data from a source to a viewer, video games need to compress data both ways–from a source to a player and back to the source–so that the servers can compute the next move. Without giving away too many details of the proprietary approach, Perlman says that OnLive’s algorithms consist of a feedback loop that constantly monitors the network that a player is using, trying to anticipate and adjust for the inconsistencies of Internet traffic.