January 20, 2011 11:13 pm

Box-free life is a game away

onlive game system players

There was a time when the only thing visibly connected to the television was a pair of rabbit ears to improve reception.

Then came the VCR, before it was replaced by the DVD player and the DVR, along with the cable and satellite set-top box.

The internet has added even more boxes and a different kind of connectivity. I currently have Apple TV, Google TV, an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and satellite boxes under my TV capable of accessing movies, music and other services over the net.

But although it enhances them now, the internet could soon make these devices obsolete. Business is moving to the cloud – working on e-mail, storing data and running services and software from remote data centres means the PC box can go and little more than a monitor, keyboard and mouse are needed.

Movies, music, games and TV channels can be delivered over the internet directly to the living room in the same way, with nothing more than an ethernet cable or a WiFi connection needed for TV sets that increasingly feature computing chips inside.

Consoles still depend on discs and drives to deliver games in best quality but I have been testing OnLive, a “cloud” gaming service, over the past few months, which promises full-featured console-style games and much more with just a broadband connection.

OnLive is available in the US and is being tested by BT in the UK and Belgacom in Belgium and Luxembourg.

The idea is simple. Games are stored on servers in remote data centres and are streamed over broadband connections to the consumer. But achieving this takes some ingenuity if the experience is to be the same as on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.

The graphics must be just as detailed and the absence of any noticeable lag in response times is vital when gamers need to fire a bullet in a split-second to avoid being killed themselves.

OnLive’s patented video compression technology removes this “latency” issue and the graphics do indeed look as lush and defined as a regular video game. The Silicon Valley company has the pedigree to take live, streaming interactions to the next level – its founder Steve Perlman previously led development of Apple’s QuickTime video standard and founded WebTV, the TV-based internet service bought by Microsoft in the 1990s.

I started by trying OnLive on a PC last summer, but the service made its TV breakthrough in December when a “MicroConsole” with a wireless game controller went on sale for $99. It is yet another box for the TV, but it is palm-sized and connects to the TV through its HDMI port and to the internet through a wired ethernet port.

The box will soon be eliminated for some gamers. OnLive and Vizio, the TV maker, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month that the service will be integrated into Vizio TV sets later this year.

An Intel Atom processor in the TV will provide enough processing power to run the service and Vizio’s version of Google TV. OnLive and Vizio are promising to deliver “Full HD” gaming with 3D and surround sound.

The wireless controller combines familiar buttons and joysticks from Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers, while adding a few new media ones – such as play, fast forward/rewind and record.

After signing into the service, an introductory screen takes you on a spin round a globe featuring thousands of screens of gaming action, before settling on a menu grid. Choosing Arena on the grid brings up a matrix of screens of action happening in games being played by others on the service.

I could click on any of hundreds of windows and be taken inside as a spectator to watch the game being played in full screen. This adds to the sense of being part of a new gaming community, as does Brag Clips, another item on the menu grid that allows you to view a similar choice of screens and play highlights of gameplay recorded by other players. Gamers can also add others as friends, message them and chat during multiplayer games.

Games can be rented or bought in a Marketplace area – typically, it can cost $6 for a three-day pass, $9 for five days of playing the game or $30 for unlimited play.

I found the games seemed to load slightly faster than on a console and, unlike with discs, there was never any delay for the downloading of an update or a patch – the games are updated by OnLive itself on its servers so you are always playing the latest version.

Only occasionally did I suffer a network problem interrupting the gameplay, with my home internet connection quite fast at 15 megabits a second. OnLive recommends a minimum of 3Mb/s and ideally 5Mb/s plus.

With the tough task of delivering games apparently solved, it should be relatively easy technically for OnLive to deliver other services such as movies and even live TV over its network.

OnLive seems the most advanced in its reach and technologies of several cloud gaming services trying to make an impression.

Canada’s TransGaming says its GameTree TV platform, featuring simpler casual games, is ready for commercial deployment, but it has yet to announce any significant adopters.

Playcast Media of the UK is offering a similar service to OnLive, but only on the PC and only in Portugal at present. Other companies in the sector include Gaikai, Igugu and Otoy.

OnLive itself has its limitations. The need for a fast wired rather than WiFi connection will put off some consumers. The choice of games is limited and there is a lack of just-released titles. Activision’s Call of Duty series is notable by its absence.

The service is also unlikely to be able to get hold of titles exclusive to the consoles it threatens – Microsoft’s Halo, Sony’s Gran Turismo or Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros for example – and it cannot compete with accessories such as the Kinect motion controller.

So while the console makers probably still have enough appeal to retain players and resist cloud gaming, OnLive does offer a viable alternative for consumers and shows the way forward for a box-free future.

chris.nuttall@ft.com

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