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When will OnLive have no latency?

"Fundamentally, at some point, you hit the speed of light."

OnLive lets you stream-play games on mobiles, tablets, PCs - pretty much any machine that loads a web browser. The games themselves run on faraway magical computers, and you control them via the internet.

You don't need to own a games console. You don't need to install things. Less clutter. Better Feng Shui.

But there's lag and latency! And more than there would be if you owned and played the game on a console at home.

When will that not be the case?

"Fundamentally, at some point, you hit the speed of light," OnLive UK general manager Bruce Grove told Eurogamer at E3. "And we'll fix that one day, but not just yet.

"Richard [Leadbetter - Digital Foundry] noted and pointed out that if you run Unreal Tournament 3 on OnLive, it runs faster. There's a reason for that: it's because we did a bunch of optimisation, specifically to how it runs natively. Now at some point we hit a wall that we can't make it go any faster. But at the same time, that wall will largely be at the point where you can't perceive it anyway.

In the olden days of CRT monitors, people talked about how chipset speeds seemed to double in 18 months to two years, Grove said. "In reality," he went on, "the thing that people miss is that technology doubles every two years because of that, and so everything we see moves faster.

Is it all illusions?

"Now at some point we hit a wall that we can't make it go any faster. But at the same time, that wall will largely be at the point where you can't perceive it anyway."

Bruce Grove, general manager, OnLive UK

"If we look at the increase in broadband speeds," he added, "we talk about 40MBPS today, 80MBPS tomorrow, 250MBPS in two years? Something like that. And what that means is we can start to think about, well, we can go to 1080p, we can go to 1080p stereoscopic, we can go to multi-stream viewings."

Grove likened the possibilities to second-screen gaming - something the Wii U is built around. He said there's no reason why OnLive couldn't also beam a stream to tablets in the room so that they could dynamically join the action in some way.

"As bandwidth increases, as video technology moves forwards and increases, we get to take more and more advantage of it," Grove streamed on.

"When you see something today that shows four streams - in two years that's 40 streams.

We've shown that the platform works. We're two years in, we're robust, we're delivering a service to lots of users. And the majority of our users seem very happy with what we're delivering, to the point that a large number of our users have said this is their primary place to go play now because they don't have time to worry about all of the other stuff.

OnLive never takes more of your internet connection than 6mpbs. At those speeds, you should get OnLive's maximum 720p output at 60fps. But that may increase in the UK, as the country undergoes some significant broadband upgrades.

What would happen if the cap was upped to 8mbps, for example?

"The key difference is that you're just going to see more of the sharp visuals," said Grove. "What we do is, we basically build the frames to fit within the 5mbps. The compression is built around that. If we free up the compression on the data centre side, it allows us to build a higher quality [image].

"In the same way, if you think about any standard video - 320p vs 480p vs. 720p - it's essentially the same principal. The way we work is we're 720p at 60fps, but we use techniques that may soften the edges and things like that. It would allow us to increase some of that."

But lag and latency aren't only the fault of network speeds. Grove said latency is inherent to televisions and tablets. In televisions, manufacturers create latency with their image buffering and processing techniques. On tablets, the touch-screen capacity apparently has inherent latency.

But by working with television manufacturers, as OnLive is with LG - the first fruits of which we'll see around September time in the UK - the pair can work together to take that superfluous tampering out "without really degrading the video quality". Perhaps you'll be able to select a special OnLive picture mode for your TV, which focuses on getting the latency right down.

At the time measurements we're talking about, every little helps.

There's also latency created by wireless controllers - but nowhere near what there used to be.

"There's also a core who are perfectly happy with the back catalogue served through Netflix, and are far more interested in the convenience of it being easy than having the super robust twitch best experience possible."

Bruce Grove

"Wireless technology has come along in a huge way," said Grove. "When we launched the micro-console, Bluetooth 3 was the standard, and a typical wireless controller gives 20 to 30 milliseconds [lag]. Bluetooth 4 is now the standard, which gives around 2 to 3 milliseconds.

"These are all the leaps that you see that we get to take advantage of, until finally the perception isn't enough for you to care any more, unless you are someone who can genuinely do that to that [look from the controller to the screen] every 16 milliseconds in one frame. Most people can't do that.

"Think about the audience," he added, "think about the fact that there is a core that may want that, but there's also a core who are perfectly happy with the back catalogue served through Netflix, and are far more interested in the convenience of it being easy than having the super robust twitch best experience possible. That's not to say we're compromising the experience; we're not - we're continually, continually improving it. But at some point, it will be at a point where no one can perceive the difference, and network speeds and network switches will allow that.

OnLive had three key points to talk about at E3 this year. The first was the partnership with telly maker LG. The tellies supporting OnLive will launch in the US imminently. Whether the sets will ship with an OnLive controller is something still being worked out. But any USB controller should work - Xbox 360 included.

As a quick aside, Gaikai announced a partnership with Samsung at E3. Gaikai also now offers full games, rather than just demos. Despite this, Grove said he hadn't "seen anything that suggests that they're directly competing". The business models are different, he said, and Gaikai tends to talk with businesses whereas OnLive talks to consumers.

The second thing OnLive had to shout about was Multiview Spectating, the closed beta for which should open in the "coming weeks". Multiview Spectating, in its current form, lets you view four OnLive stream-screens: one main screen for the game you're playing, then four smaller windows of whatever else you like. The possibilities here for co-op and team-play - being able to see, at a glance, what a team member is doing and where they are - are significant. Multiview Spectating should launch within six weeks, Eurogamer was told.

The third thing OnLive was showing was One-click In-browser Cloud Gaming. This is a template web page that allows publishers to make a site on which people can play their games, via OnLive, with a click of the mouse. This is live in the US, but not in the UK.

OnLive on tablets in December 2011.
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About the Author
Robert Purchese avatar

Robert Purchese

Associate Editor

Bertie is a synonym for Eurogamer. Writes, podcasts, looks after the Supporter Programme. Talks a lot.

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