OnLive, the new cloud-based game service announced at GDC by Steve Perlman, founder and CEO of his Rearden incubator, caused quite a stir. Obviously, that was the intent. Will it work? Will it revolutionize gaming? If you recall, Perlman also caused quite a stir a few years back at SIGGRAPH, when he announced Mova's Contour Reality Capture system in Boston. Well, Contour was a key component in Digital Domain's Oscar-winning VFX work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: it was used to volumetrically capture Brad Pitt's expressions. And, as Perlman tells VFXWorld, it's a key component in the development of OnLive as well, which is still in beta before its planned winter launch in North America.
With such investors as Warner Bros., Autodesk and Maverick Capital, OnLive intends to deliver some of the latest and most advanced games instantly, on any TV, PC or Mac via a sleek, inexpensive MicroConsole. In addition, OnLive is supported by such publishers as Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Take-Two Interactive Software, Warner Bros. Interactive Ent., THQ Inc., Epic Games, Eidos, Atari Interactive and Codemasters.
The Perlman pitch ("No high-end hardware, no upgrades, no endless downloads, no discs, no recalls, no obsolescence") was followed by a private demo (including a sneak peek at Geni4, a new CG human prototype) and then a Q&A.
Bill Desowitz: What's been the key challenge in pulling this off technically?
Steve Perlman: The engineering behind getting that cool [MicroConsole] to have no delay with an HD TV stream, running through a DSL or cable modem connection from a server that's a 1,000 miles away was tricky. First of all, there were the perceptual science issues: How you perceive compressed images and so forth?
BD: And the secret sauce?
SP: We have a new technology we developed, which is interactive video compression, which will stream the video down with effectively no latency so that the screen updates on your TV set or your computer screen are faster than human perception, so that it feels like the game is running locally, even though it's running remotely. Of course, that offers lots of advantages: the games are always updated, we have the latest hardware every six months -- we'll put in the newest NVIDIA or Intel or AMD chips -- and there's no piracy for games. And you can have a level of performance for graphics intensive games that have never been possible before.
BD: And how do you achieve that?
SP: What we do with OnLive is every six months there are better servers. So if they want to plan a game out three years from now, they just look at Intel, NVIDIA and AMD's roadmap and it will tell them they're level of capability. Plus there are things that are impractical to build into a PC or a game system that we can do. For instance, there was some new silicon announced that can do realtime ray tracing. We can go and build that into servers that have games that use that and a publisher can count on everyone with a Mac, a PC or a TV having access to that, whereas it's a tough bet to make to build that kind of silicon into a new game platform. You're going to see a level of graphics realism that no one's ever seen before.
BD: And that's where Mova comes in?
SP: Yes, one of the things we realized in the development of Mova was that we could now finally create a photoreal face. Well, knowing what I understand about technology and game system design, there's no way we could build a console that could sit in your living room that could playback a game with photoreal people in it. Even if you get a big enough GPU and a big enough fan and a big enough power supply, there's one big problem: data flow... so with the OnLive service, these servers can have multiple GPUs, and very fast CPUs and they're all served by these 16-drive RAID arrays tied in with gigabyte Ethernet, and so you can stream new geometry and new textures in very, very rapidly in realtime.
BD: So OnLive was always part of the plan to evolve the Mova Contour system?
SP: Yes, if you look at the company, OnLive was incubated at Rearden for seven years in development. I think part of the work we do at Mova is what drove this, realizing that we were never going to be able to take Mova out of the high-end motion picture world unless we came up with another way of developing distributed games.
The engineering is primarily done in Palo Alto; the creative work is done in San Francisco. And we have over 100 employees. And we have over 100 patents and patents pending. There are literally over 5,000 pages of patents filed about this technology. But it's very complex.
BD: Let's talk about the significance of Geni4.
SP: Geni4 is a prototype of what's made possible with OnLive in the future. Obviously the key thing is mass market games, but in some number of years, as I talked to you about Mova a long, long time ago, what we want to be able to achieve is a very high degree of visual realism... She is entirely computer-generated. There is no person that looks like that. And we know that we can achieve that level of realism, realtime, with GPUs. It's not ready now because the games aren't developed around it.
BD: But this raises the bar for CG characters?
SP: Yes, look at the liquid reflection in her eyes. For the skin shaping, we have subsurface scattering and can just about simulate in realtime in the GPU. I think that when you have games that look like this, you begin to blur the boundaries between games and motion pictures. You could imagine a Harry Potter game where there's a Quidditch match and Harry looks exactly like Daniel Radcliffe. We know we can do that, and we also know we can't do that in a console.
BD: And what's it like having Autodesk as an investor?
SP: They're very excited about having their tools available. They just acquired Softimage, so they're it, right? And yet they are very excited about all the possibilities that this opens up... When it comes to small things: short episodic, clever animations that a small studio might do today, we can now have that be an interactive experience and provide immediate distribution. And who knows? They make a little money from that and can make a leap into the next thing. It opens a lot of doors -- that's the key thing.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.