Here at E3, NVIDIA was on hand to demonstrate their latest gaming tech, the NVIDIA GRID. The plan is to offer cloud-based gaming to PCs, Macs, Notebooks, Tablets, Smartphones, Smart TVs and just about any other terminal, smart or dumb.
Over the past couple of years, NVIDIA has wildly expanded their product portfolio. We've seen them go from offering primarily GPUs and CPU chipsets to full-on ARM-based SoCs, GEFORCE GRID cloud-based computing, supercomputing GPUs...the list goes on and on.
The cloud-based GRID effort is the latest in this line of innovation. What sets this initiative apart from competitors such as OnLive, however, is the manner in which NVIDIA is going about it. OnLive and others run your content on discrete, physical GPUs. That is, whatever title it is that you wish to play is actually initialized on a real video card, the video feed is captured, and the game is streamed back down to your device.
NVIDIA chooses instead to virtualize all of the GPUs used by their service. This allows for a much more efficient use of hardware since the body of computer power available to the service can be dynamically directed where necessary. On a phyiscal solution, if 100 people want to play a relatively low-end game, and 100 people want to play an intense, high-end game, that requires 200 physical GPUs. On GRID, however, if the same 200 people want to play those games, then more power can be directed at the high-end games, and less at the low-end games - meaning that the overall effort is accomplished with fewer resources.
I chatted briefly with Phil Eisler, NVIDIA's General Manager of Cloud Gaming about the GRID effort (apologies for the poor signal:noise ratio in the audio; the mic battery was dying - listening through headphones helps):
A minor correction in the video - that's actually a Samsung Smart TV, not an LG.
One of the points that Eisler really made clear was the effort NVIDIA has put out in order to absolutely minimize how much latency you can expect to receive. With an excellent Internet connection, that value is pushed down to around 10ms, which is good enough for most gamers (we can perceive latency down to below half a millisecond) - it's not until you get to 25ms or so that delay starts to be a noticeable problem.
In this demo, NVIDIA partnered with GAIKAI, which is one of the major providers of cloud-based gaming services. Together, the companies look for location facilities with tight connections to the greater Internet - that is to say, a provider that is near a major Internet backbone. The greater number of hops you have to go through to send your data packets to a user, the longer the delay they experience.
So far, the Smart TV demo was just that - a demonstration. NVIDIA plans to work with Samsung to bring GRID cloud apps to the Samsung series 7000 and series 8000 smart TVs later this year, with public availability following a beta period. Only a very recent smart TV is capable of working with the service, which requires the televisions to offer at least a dual-core processor. LG will come at a later date, and Eisler expects that "most Smart TV manufacturers" will offer the service at some point. There's no word on what or how many game titles we can expect, but Bulletstorm and World of Warcraft are both on the agenda.
When asked about the possibility of GRID gaming undermining the company's discrete PC GPU efforts, Eisler pointed out that currently the service was limited to 1280x720 resolution. That's lower than the vast majority of televisions sold today, but still often superior to what the current generation of consoles can produce. Enthusiast gamers won't be satisfied with that, he said, and he's almost certainly right. Other applications for physical GPUs and the end user also exist, such as accelered graphics programs, Folding@Home, and more.
But for gamers who can't afford to upgrade to a new graphics card, or perhaps just don't feel the need, GRID can shine. It also has the potential for some features, such as state saving (play on your TV, go out, continue playing on your phone, pause, then pick up your tablet and keep going), that traditional gaming just can't match.