Part one of our interview with OnLive's Mike McGarvey

Cloud control

It grabbed headlines at GDC, but new cloud-based gaming service OnLive plans to totally subvert the games industry model and take developers along for the ride. Can it live up to the hype? Michael French and Ben Parfitt speak to CEO Mike McGarvey in part one of our extensive interview.

Gizmondo, Phantom – these are the names being uttered in relation to OnLive. When are we going to see something concrete, such as a closed (or even open) beta that will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that OnLive is real and works?

There has never been a service offering like OnLive, and we need time to better understand usage patterns and user preferences before the system is finalised and made available as a service. Such analysis is highly complex from both a technology and methodology perspective.

We are rolling the service out in phases, including several beta testing programs that will focus on getting more information about certain aspects of the service. We want to ensure that we are offering the best possible product when we make the service generally available. We expect our closed beta to begin later this summer with a wider, external beta following a few months later. That said, the timing on this will be very dependent on the feedback we get from earlier phases of testing.

It seems to us that your tech could work just as well with consoles as it could with PC. Are there any plans to bring OnLive’s tech to the console space?

Yes, but not the traditional console. In addition to our Internet-based platform that runs on Mac and PC, we’re also launching our own console: a sleek, inexpensive device we’re calling the OnLive MicroConsole. About as small as a deck of cards, the MicroConsole can instantly deliver content directly to the TV. Unlike traditional gaming consoles, OnLive’s MicroConsole evolves as games evolve, eliminating the need to upgrade the system and graphics card and completely avoiding frustratingly long downloads or installs. And unlike current consoles our MicroConsole is inexpensive to make!

So how much will the MicroConsole cost?

We’re not releasing pricing information at this time, but we’re not afraid to brag that it will be cheaper than competing consoles. We have a lot of flexibility about how we package the service and we feel our consumer offering will be very competitive.

Can third parties, or developers with an idea for a new game that uses an original controller, make peripherals for it?

Yes, most wired USB controllers will work with the platform. For the best wireless experience, however, we recommend that players use the OnLive wireless controller. As you know, wireless controllers inherently introduce lag. So, we had to develop a controller from the ground up that would give OnLive gamers immediate response.

There’s a lot of scepticism about the video encoding and streaming – what can you tell us about the technology that makes OnLive work?

OnLive works by taking input from your controller, keyboard or mouse and connects the player to the OnLive service. Then, the service’s custom game servers render the game graphics. OnLive’s proprietary video compression technology streams back low-latency video to the player’s TV via the OnLive MicroConsole, or to a PC or Mac via a small browser plug-in. A proprietary compression algorithm and custom silicon make it possible for us to deliver games instantly over the Internet.

Our revolutionary video compression algorithm was designed specifically for video games and can encode and compress video into data in about one millisecond. A custom-built silicon chip does the actual encoding calculations at the server end, and that information is decompressed at the gamers end, inside the MicroConsole for those playing on their televisions, or if someone is playing on Mac or PC, the decompression is handled within a small software client downloaded into a Web browser.

The data delivered from the game server to the MicroConsole or to a PC or Mac is proprietary and highly tuned to not only produce low-latency HD video, but it is designed to tolerate packet corruption, and pass through consumer-grade firewalls, routers and switches.

Surely the idea of a cloud-based service can be copied given there is no proprietary hardware like the Wiimote, Sixaxis/DualShock or 360 and you ‘just’ need a server farm for it – so what’s to stop a format-holder launching their own similar service in competition?

The technology needed to deliver games over the internet requires much more than a ‘just a server farm’. If that were true, then someone would have launched a similar service years ago.

OnLive was an immensely complex engineering effort, and beyond that, it took years of testing in hundreds of homes to make it work seamlessly.

Beyond the underlying interactive video compression technology, OnLive’s patents cover the layers of all the technology built on top of that compression that would be necessary to deliver a practical video game service offering.

Given the immense multi-disciplinary complexity of OnLive, the time that was required to address the practical execution issues, and the fact we have over 100 patents and patents pending, we think it is unlikely there will be another system like OnLive anytime soon.

Check back tomorrow for part two.

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