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Onlive: Cloud Computing and Consoles

November 30, 2010

As technology seems to inexorably go marching on, we’re about to start seeing new ways to bring gaming into our living rooms. Kinect for the Xbox 360 and Move for the PS3 are examples of that, but there’s another branch growing from the same tree. For some time, the term “cloud computing” , in which a single task is shared amongst a network in order to lighten the load. There have been cloud computing applications for a while now, even some where the public can offer their own idle cycles in order to help out with some herculean computing problem, such as folding@home and SETI@home . These computing tasks required raw computing power, not speed, which is why they could easily be broken into smaller portions and farmed out to volunteers.

Gaming, however, is an entirely different animal. It’s fast, complex, and you can’t finish piece C before you’re done with pieces A and B; in other words, you can’t apply cloud computing easily to it. That’s why Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo can make money by selling us better and better consoles. We need beefier machines plugged directly into our televisions in order to get the best gaming experiences money could buy. OnLive aims to change that.

What is OnLive? It’s a microconsole, a tiny device with no significant computing power of its own that you plug into your T.V. and receives each frame of the game you’re playing from a server farm. Sounds complicated, and it is, but the user doesn’t really have to sweat the details. If OnLive performs as advertised, you’d be able to play the latest games at the highest quality without having to invest in the required hardware, saving you hundreds of dollars. In fact, with OnLive, you wouldn’t even buy the games you want to play. Instead, you’d buy access to the titles you want, without ever actually purchasing a disc or downloading it to your hard drive. It sounds like a wonderful thing, doesn’t it? Well, if things were simple, then OnLive would quickly put every other console-maker out of business.

Alas, they aren’t.

First off, OnLive shifts all the computing duties a console would perform on to servers that could be miles and miles away from the television set it’s connected to. That transmission happens on whatever network connection OnLive is plugged into. So, users have to ask themselves another question: how reliable is my cable provider? In some ways, playing games on OnLive is a lot like watching youtube videos. Really, really high quality youtube videos. If your cable connection is up to the task, then you could probably get a worthwhile experience from OnLive. That, however, might just mean that you’re paying just as much money as you’d save by using OnLive to your internet provider.

Also, you should remember that, with OnLive, you don’t actually own the games you play. You wouldn’t have old cartridges collecting dust somewhere in your attic, denying yourself (or your kids) the priceless pleasure of rediscovery. Instead, all you’d have would be the itemized monthly bill. That, admittedly, is a bit of an esoteric concern, but as gamers we do have to keep track of these things.
There are some cool features OnLive offers that traditional consoles can’t, such as the ability to watch others playing games, live. That kind of voyeurism is interesting, but not exactly compelling. If hotels would start equipping their rooms with OnLive microconsoles, they might be able to offer some pretty interesting services, which opens the door to a whole other gamut of possibilities, like presenting gamers with the following conflict: Do I go out there to bask in the glory of the Grand Canyon, or do I stay here and bask in Halo Reach instead?

Yes, OnLive poses plenty of questions, and the truth is that it’s a glimpse of what the future might hold. In my own opinion, OnLive might be a little ahead of its time. Broadband connections have some catching up to do so that OnLive works properly, but once a 15mbit connection is taken for granted, services like OnLive might offer a real alternative to purchasing all the consoles and discs we do today. After all, what we’re after when we buy a game isn’t the disc itself. That’s just the means to the ends, and the ends is the experience, that ephemeral thing some people call fun.

For now, OnLive is more a tech demo, a harbinger of things to come, rather than something that is already at our doorstep.

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