Cloud Services Let Gadgets Punch above their Weight

December 8, 2010 Off By Hoofer
Grazed from MIT Technology Review.  Author: Tom Simonite.

Smart phones and tablets have never been more popular, but they pack puny computing power compared to the average desktop computer. Two companies hope to change this by connecting modestly powered portable devices to powerful Internet servers that perform intensive tasks on their behalf. This week, both these companies—OnLive, based in Palo Alto, California, and GameString, in Vancouver, Canada—demonstrated handheld gadgets running high-end games and other complex software.

Since launching last year, OnLive has used powerful servers to stream computer games to its subscribers’ PCs. It recently released a lightweight "microconsole" that brings the service to television sets, and it also has its sights set on portable devices. Yesterday it released an iPad app that uses the same technology to bring those PC games to Apple’s tablet. The action is relayed from the server to the app using compression algorithms that ensure quick transmission of data over a wireless connection and the Internet.

"Initially we are only offering the ability to watch other players who are logged into OnLive from a PC, because these games were not designed to run on a touchscreen," says Steve Perlman, OnLive’s founder and CEO. "But I know that publishers are excited about it becoming possible to offer high-performance titles on a tablet, and we will work on that." As soon as game developers release a game that can be operated with a finger rather than a keyboard and mouse, OnLive will make it playable on an iPad, he says.

GameString released its own demo video yesterday, of an Android smart phone being used to play the multiplayer game World of Warcraft (see video). The Android app was made using Adobe’s Air platform for web apps and a software toolkit created by Gamestring to help game developers make powerful games that run partly on a mobile device and partly on a cloud server.

Wireless networks, server hardware and software, and portable devices have all become sophisticated enough to enable a big shift in how games are delivered, says Chris Boothroyd, GameString’s founder and CEO. "They’re following music and movies—onto the Web," he says.

Streaming a game is much more complex than streaming video or music, though. Video software typically "buffers" several seconds of footage ahead of what the viewer sees at any time, in case of connection problems. This can’t be done with games, because what happens in the next few seconds depends on the player’s present actions. Instead, compression has to be good enough to ensure that the data stream never falls behind long enough to affect gameplay.

OnLive’s engineers have developed algorithms that are tuned to a particular game, and even a particular user’s Internet connection. "The compression algorithm that we use can even vary from scene to scene," says Perlman. "Darkness, detail, and the pattern of the 3-D motion in the frames all make a difference." If data is lost in transmission, then OnLive’s software attempts to conceal the error by extrapolating from what is known, he says. All of that work is done by software running on remote servers-in the cloud. The software installed on a user’s device is very simple, sending little more than the coordinates of the user’s mouse and the timing of keyboard or button clicks.

The technology has applications outside gaming, says Perlman, who yesterday demonstrated a still-unfinished app that brings a full Windows 7 desktop to the iPad. "Everything works as if it was local," says Perlman, "even high-end applications like professional video editing or computer-aided-design applications typically used on a workstation."