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Intelligent Machines

How Nvidia Plans to Be the Netflix of Gaming

Nvidia’s Shield console uses a range of tricks to reduce latency during game play.

By some estimates, the computer-game industry is worth almost $100 billion.

In an age where songs and movies are routinely streamed online, the chip maker Nvidia believes it has cracked a major technical problem that has limited streaming for video games.

Game consoles are hugely popular, but they rely on data stored on DVDs and computer hardware that can quickly become outdated. Nvidia’s new entertainment system, called Shield, uses several hardware and software tricks to deliver games run on remote supercomputers with as little latency as possible, theoretically eliminating the need for owners to buy a new, more powerful version of the console every few years.

At a press conference at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week, Nvidia’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, claimed that Shield goes further than anything else to speed up games streamed at high resolution. “From the point at which I click a button to the moment that input is rendered on screen is less than 150 milliseconds,” he said. That would be similar to the performance of a PlayStation or Xbox playing a game on a DVD.

Andrew Fear, product manager for Grid, Nvidia’s game-streaming service, told MIT Technology Review that the company has been working to shave milliseconds of latency from each stage of the process, ensuring that a game will run smoothly even over subpar Internet connections. Nvidia did this in part by creating custom hardware and software that rapidly turns graphical imagery into data that can be streamed across the Internet.

Fear said, however, that performance would depend on a user’s location. When the service launches, games will be streamed from one of four locations: eastern United States, western United States, Ireland, and Japan. “We know that if you’re within 30 to 40 milliseconds from our data center [about half the distance from New York to London], then typically your latency in the home will be around 150 milliseconds,” he said.

The Shield console will launch in the U.S. in May for a one-off fee of $199 with two subscription packages for its Grid video game-streaming service (owners can also buy and download video game titles at full price). One subscription package will allow games to be streamed at slightly lower resolution and frames-per-second than a conventional console. A premium option will offer a resolution and frame rate that’s comparable to a conventional console.

Grid is not the first attempt at a cloud-based video game service. A company called OnLive pioneered the idea five years ago (see 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2011: Cloud Streaming), and in 2012, Sony bought Gaikai, another cloud gaming company, for $380 million. Gaikai’s technology is now available as PS Now.

Previous efforts have suffered from excessive latency—the time between making an input on the controller and seeing the result on the screen. Players often grow frustrated when a game takes a fraction of a second too long to register their input. Techniques used to reduce latency for games could also improve other online services, such as videoconferencing and high-resolution movie streaming.

Grid’s games are powered by supercomputers built using Nvidia’s chips, located in its data centers. According to Huang, the hardware used to run each game is “twice as powerful as the most powerful games console in the world today.”

Nvidia isn’t creating games for the service, but it will offer 50 of the latest PC titles at launch, with more in subsequent weeks. Players can also buy and download games onto the machine, which is also the first console box able to stream video in 4K—an ultra-high-definition video format for some televisions. 

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