Local game streaming: Coming soon from the PC

Nvidia's Project Shield was one of the most intriguing new products on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. This handheld gaming device combines the latest Tegra 4 SoC with a 5" screen, a console-style controller, and a stock version of Google's Android OS. It can play Android games, of course, but that's only one part of the picture. Project Shield's real allure is its ability to stream PC games from a GeForce-equipped system. That capability made for some pretty neat demos on the CES show floor, and it has big implications for the future of PC gaming.

Although Project Shield is very much a new device—and arguably a new class of product—the foundation for the streaming technology is not. This summer, Nvidia revealed GeForce Grid, a cloud gaming platform designed for online services like Gaikai and OnLive. The platform uses the on-chip H.264 encoding capabilities built into Kepler GPUs, combined with low-latency APIs and other widgets, to allow users to play PC games remotely over the Internet.

The prospect sounds exciting, but streaming solutions come with inherent baggage. First, they require a lot of bandwidth. Nvidia's Phil Eisler estimates that you'd need a 5Mbps link to deliver 720p video at 30 frames per second, and that a 1080p feed at 60 FPS would require a whopping 15-20Mbps. Then there's the issue of responsiveness. The GeForce Grid-powered Gaikai service has about 160 milliseconds of latency, according to Eisler. That kind of lag may be tolerable for slower-paced strategy games and MMOs, but it's problematic for shooters and other action-oriented titles.

Network speed shouldn't be a problem for Project Shield. Instead of tapping into remote servers over the Internet, it streams games from PCs connected to a local area network. Even over Wi-Fi, most home networks should have ample bandwidth for streaming. More importantly, latencies should be low enough to offer a good experience in even fast-paced games. And, since Project Shield streams games from your own PC, there's no need to pay a separate service fee; you can administer your own local gaming cloud.

The prospect of enjoying PC games from any room in the house is pretty enticing. While I may prefer playing first-person shooters in front of the triple-monitor array in my office, keyboard and mouse in hand, some games are simply more enjoyable when reclining on the couch across from a big-screen TV. That's why there's a gaming rig tucked under my 42" plasma. Maintaining a second gaming system isn't cheap, though. Were it not for all the old review hardware I have lying around, this luxury would be hard for me to justify—especially given how well the new breed of low-cost media boxes handles the video and music playback duties that occupy most of my home-theater PC's time.

Project Shield probably won't be cheap, so it, too, is likely to be a luxury. Then again, I'm more enthusiastic about the potential of local streaming than I am about this particular implementation. While the controller looks solid, squinting at games on a 5" screen doesn't really appeal to me. The HDMI port at least allows output to larger displays, including pretty much any decent TV, but I can't help but think a simpler approach would have broader appeal.

Imagine, if you will, a set-top box with a Tegra 4 chip, an HDMI output, integrated networking, and USB ports for controllers and external storage. Such a device could surely be sold for close to a hundred bucks (the Tegra-3 powered Ouya console is $99), and it should be every bit as capable of streaming games from a local PC. Add Android, and you've got instant support for native games plus the ability to play just about any kind of multimedia content, whether it's streamed from Netflix or liberated from BitTorrent. A remote would have to be included, of course, but you could get by without making a dedicated controller; Nvidia built third-party gamepad support into the Tegra 3 platform, and that feature has surely carried over to its successor.

While any Tegra 4-based device could conceivably be capable of getting in on the remote gaming love, the touchscreen interfaces of tablets and smartphones seem ill-suited to PC titles designed with different inputs in mind. Smaller and higher-PPI displays may not get along with PC-centric UI and HUD elements, either. A 1080p TV seems like the most appropriate target for local streaming.

Project Shield and GeForce Grid may be Nvidia products, but there's no reason AMD can't come up with a comparable solution. The Radeon maker has GPUs for the PC side of the equation and low-power processors suitable for a device on the receiving end. All that's required is the glue that links them together—including, perhaps, some dedicated logic at the silicon level. Of course, AMD seems to have locked up the contracts for the next-generation consoles, and its hardware is already in the Xbox 360, the Wii, and the Wii U. There may be little desire to rock the boat by creating a potential competitor to those products.

Boy, would it be nice if there were a set of open protocols designed specifically for low-latency local game streaming.

As it turns out, we might just get the next best thing. In an interview with The Verge, Gabe Newell revealed that Valve is working with Nvidia on streaming tech that could allow Steam-enabled TVs to play games served by network-attached PCs. Newell doesn't know whether that network will be wireless or not, suggesting that Wi-Fi may still have some latency issues. He does, however, throw out this tasty teaser:

The Steam Box will also be a server. Any PC can serve multiple monitors, so over time, the next-generation (post-Kepler) you can have one GPU that’s serving up eight simultaeneous [sic] game calls. So you could have one PC and eight televisions and eight controllers and everybody getting great performance out of it.

Makes perfect sense, really. CPUs and GPUs continue to add parallel processing capacity, but most games are designed for consoles based on hardware that's out of date when it's released and then stagnates for years after that. Future PCs should have the ability not only to deliver a premium gaming experience in a traditional desktop environment, but also to provide a good experience for multiple networked sessions on separate devices. The potential for LAN parties—indeed, for multiplayer home arcades—is enormous. I couldn't be more excited.


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